Sunday, September 22, 2013
Storyteller's Rulebook #189: The Audience Will Vet Your Hero Thoroughly (And Most Heroes Fail the Test)
We’re all awesome in our own heads. We’re all cool. We’re all righteous and justified. But the audience knows to be dubious. The thoughts in our heads and even our actions when we’re alone don’t show who we really are, only interactions can do that.
The audience is waiting for a chance to evaluate whether or not they want your main character to be their hero. They can’t make that choice until they’ve heard this character have a conversation with someone else. Only dialogue tests a character. Will your hero pass that test?
This is one of the big problems with movies where the “good guy” is suddenly revealed to be the bad guy more than halfway through, such as The Perfect Getaway and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
The writers of these types of scripts labor under a fundamental misconception. They think that the audience assumes that the main character is the good guy until being told otherwise. But the opposite is actually true: the audience will automatically distrust your main characters, and will only invest in them if they prove themselves to be sufficiently heroic early on in your story. Your audience will be watching your heroes like a hawk, and they’ll know your heroes aren’t really heroic enough long before the storyteller reveals this “shocking secret”.
Both of the above examples were very popular among industry folk, but then they unexpectedly did terribly with test audiences, and so they were barely released. (Mandy Lane just got dumped in a few theaters, seven years after its festival debut) Film people have to watch too many movies (sometimes 3 or 4 terrible new movies a day), and they’re totally jaded. They crave shocking twists that will wake them up from the their boredom.
But general audiences don’t get to watch hundreds of bad new movies for free. We have to pay for each one, and so we have high standards. We still demand characters we can really care about. And, in order to spare ourselves from being hurt, we’re going to decide early on in the story whether of nor we want to like your main character, based on what we think of their interactions with others.
Audiences didn’t really care when Mandy Lane turned out to be the villain, because, before that, she had been nobody’s idea of a compelling hero.