Sunday, March 20, 2011

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 5: The Hero Is Too Powerful

I wrote before about the need to balance cheering for a hero with fearing for a hero. I also wrote about the badass/vulnerability ratio. The difference between a swaggering hero and a loser hero is about five degrees. Even losers, if we’re going to care about them, have to have a lot of stuff they’re secretly good at, and the most super-powered role-models have to be defined by their limitations, not their powers.

I was once in a pitch meeting where they wanted me to re-write a high profile project that began with a series of scenes in which a sniper eliminated various guys, seemingly at random, before we found out their secret connection (a childhood experiment they had all taken part in long ago). The producer said, “So we start by meeting the first guy and we’re sure he’s the hero of the movie because he drives a great car and goes home to his great apartment where he has sex with his hot girlfriend. But then he gets shot in the head! The audience will be so shocked that we’ve killed off our hero!”

I nodded politely but I wanted to scream about how wrong they were. No, the audience would not identify with this guy as the hero. The villain, maybe, but not the hero. Heroes are defined by their vulnerabilities, not their invulnerabilities.

In the treatment I wrote for them, I invented a very differnt fake-out-hero: My guy works in a stereo store in the mall. When we meet him, he’s down on one knee proposing to a dubious goth-girl co-worker, who laughs out loud and tells him to try again. He appreciates her honesty and asks for tips on how to do it better—he was just practicing for his real girlfriend, who works in another store in the mall. After his shift ends, he finds that she’s already left work. He catches up to her in the atrium, but she says she’s fed up with his unwillingness to commit and starts to leave, so he decides to propose right there and then. He gets down on one knee and offers her a ring while a crowd gathers… Finally, she hesitantly says yes. The crowd cheers! Then… BLAM! His head explodes from a sniper’s bullet.

Now that’s a shock, because this guy was really acting like a hero. Making yourself vulnerable is heroic. Exceeding your own capabilities is heroic. Taking a risk is heroic. Schtupping your hot girlfriend is not heroic. Audiences hate it when they’re asked to identify with invulnerability. This is why nobody cared for the second and third Matrix movies. By the end of the first one, the hero could already control the fabric of his reality. Who’s going to identify with that?

1 comment:

Christine Tyler said...

BLAM! You're right on target with these.