Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 9: Give Them TWO Statements of Philosophy

Last time we did this, I talked about how every character needs a false goal and a true goal, but now I realize that there’s a corollary to that. Most screenwriting books will tell you that the hero needs to have a statement of philosophy, preferably in the first scene. So I dutifully followed along and did just that...

But I’ve only very gradually realized that this is no good. I was allowing my heroes to state the overall source of personal strength that was going to get them through the whole screenplay, but my heroes’ characterization felt flat because I was ending the story before it began. When the screenplay begins, heroes shouldn’t yet suspect what they’ll need to know to win. That’s the whole point. They have to go on this journey to figure it out.

But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a statement of philosophy right up front. This is your chance to show how wrong they are. This is your chance to establish their false expectation that life will work a certain way. That makes it all the more upsetting when it suddenly doesn’t. So I still end my first scene with either a blatant or an inadvertent statement of philosophy from my hero, but it’s a false s.o.p. Then, ninety minuets later, after the many stunning reversals of Act 2, they have their hallelujah moment and discover their true s.o.p.

Once I realized this, I started seeing it everywhere, but let’s just focus on two examples: Tommy Lee Jones is a smart actor, and he cleverly stole The Fugitive from Harrison Ford when he ad libbed his own false s.o.p. Ford points a gun at him and says “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones looks at him like he’s crazy and informs him “I don’t care,” which wasn’t in the script. This sets up Jones’s big reversal at the end nicely. Of course, the most famous false s.o.p. would be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for no one”. Only later does her reverse himself and declare that his problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.

Screenwriters talk a lot about ways to “raise the stakes” of the plot, but a false s.o.p. raises the emotional stakes. It shows the imposing size of the internal barrier the hero must overcome in order to succeed.

So now your hero has a big journey ahead of them, but before your audience ready to join them, the hero is going to need to show some aptitude, or else your audience will soon give up on them in disgust. We’ll talk about a hero’s resourcefulness next.


Jonathan Auxier said...

This is something I struggled with for a LONG time -- when a character accurately states their personal philosophy/motivation, it is identical to the author stating his thematic subtext. No good.

I also think this idea is very closely linked to (what I see as) your ongoing quest to better articulate the "how much should a protagonist change" question. As you point out, real heroes don't actually change all that much (as you've observed with Marty McFly). What does change dramatically is their personal philosophy. In the case of McFly, he goes from being a badass without confidence to a badass with confidence. The real change is in his personal philosophy.

Of course, even if this is true, it doesn't mean development execs won't continue to ask you to state the subtext in the first scene. Yet another reason why I'm starting to think that spec writing is the only way to note-proof a story.

Matt Bird said...

The hope is that you can satisfy those execs by "stating the subtext" in a multiple choice fashion, which leaves you some room to work with.

The bad version is "state the moral", or "nail down the metaphor". The good version is "Establish the parameters of the thematic debate."

"Lost" did this beautifully for the first three seasons. The first season was about "fate vs. free will". The second season was "faith vs. reason". the third season was "cult vs. community". Each season, they were able to find dozens of great stories within that larger conflict. The first episode of each season pitted two contradictory ideas against each other, and all of the other stories played out within that moral arena over the course of the season.

Execs can be pretty dumb, but I'd like to think that even the studio head's cokehead nephew can be satisfied without forcing you to give the whole game away.

James Kennedy said...

They might change their philosophy, but need they come out and explicitly *state* what their new philosophy is? Everyone remembers Tommy Lee Jones saying "I don't care" but I don't remember a statement about his new philosophy -- his *actions* were his statement, right?

Somewhat related to your point: a variant of this could be that the statement-of-philosophy doesn't change, but the hero's understanding of it changes. When Luke says to Ben in Star Wars, "I want to be a Jedi like my father," he doesn't really understand the full depth of what he's saying (and indeed, Ben's patient, you-don't-know-what-you're-saying smile expresses volumes). By the end of Return of the Jedi, when Luke says to the Emperor, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me," he knows exactly what he means; he's suffered for that understanding (and will soon suffer more).

Statement of philosophy doesn't change, but understanding of it changes through experience. What say you?

Matt Bird said...

Jones does sort of have a new s.o.p. at the end of the Fugitive (Ford says "I thought you didn't care." Jones looks at him sternly and says "I don't," but then he sheepishly smiles and admits: "Don't tell anybody") but I certainly agree that it's possible to have the change in philosophy simply be expressed through action. Han Solo never says "I realized my problems didn't amount to a hill of beans on these worlds..."

And I LOVE ironic reversals of the same s.o.p., but it's hard to pull that off. Stephen Colbert does it beautifully every night with "The Word", where he repeats the same sentiment at the beginning and the end of the piece but he's reversed the meaning in the meantime.