Monday, August 15, 2011

The Big Idea, Finale: Unique Characters are Overrated, Unique Relationships are Better

Okay folks, one last piece of back fill and then tomorrow… the big list!
Unique characters are overrated. Does your character feel familiar? Good! Audiences want characters to feel familiar, so that they can identify with them. But they also want to see something new they’ve never seen before—so what to do? Of course, you can search for a character that will feel familiar and yet be unlike anything that audience have seen before, but you’re probably going to look in vain. There have been a lot of characters before yours. 

You’re going to have much better luck if you take two familiar characters and give them a believable but never-seen-on-screen-before relationship. The high school outcast is a familiar archetype, but there are always new directions to take it: My Bodyguard is about a kid who pays a scary bully to protect him from the other kids, Rushmore is about a kid who strikes up a friendship with one of his private schools funders who is equally alienated, Election is about a kid who infuriates her teacher so much that he tries to sabotage her student government election... These were never-seen-onscreen-before relationships, but they rang true.Okay, Max Fischer and Tracy Flick were pretty unique characters as well, but if those movies had been about watching either of those outcasts try to get a date with the popular kid, then they still would have fallen into overly familiar territory. It’s the unique relationship, not the unique character, that makes the movie.

I’ve known a lot of strange people, but none so strange that I can’t think of a movie character just like them. On the other hand, I’ve had a dozen oddball relationships in my life that I’ve never seen replicated onscreen before: unlikely friendships, oversharing bosses, bizarre dates, murderous tontines... …I’ve said too much

This gets back to volatility. Don’t force the characters to generate their own conflict. Allow two seemingly functional characters to collide in an unexpectedly dysfunctional way. Such things have happened to you, and if it’s happened to you, then it’s happened to others in the audience. They’ll happily yelp in identification when they see it onscreen.


James Kennedy said...

This fits in with an idea I've had knocking around my head for a while: that it's not how the characters change over the course of a story that counts. The thing that counts is how the relationships between the characters change.

To go back to that old standby, STAR WARS, you can say that Luke has changed by going from farmboy to galactic hero, or Han has changed by going from mercenary jerk to loyal friend, but that seems like straining. Nothing in their character has essentially changed. They still seem like the same people we've known all along, we're just seeing surprising sides of that essence.

However, the relationships between Luke, Han, and Leia are changing throughout the movie, quickly and with concrete effects each time. So perhaps if we thought of each relationship as a character, and plotted its own "hero's journey," we would come up with arcs and stories that would seem much less forced. No fake-smelling scenes to "prove" how a zero became a hero or a bad guy became a good guy, because people rarely change in a fundamental way. But relationships are always is flux, sometimes radically.

Watch the relationships, not the characters.

j.s. said...

This also seems to relate to your ideas about ordinary emotions in extraordinary situations. So film stories are relatable to the extent that we recognize the characters and the emotions from our lives but special and different enough to be worth our time because of the uniqueness of the situations and the relationships.

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