Podcast

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: More Thoughts on the Moment of Humanity

The original piece for this was here, but I keep expanding the definition, so I thought it was time for a re-write.

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on your hero’s head until he or she is ready to stand up and do something about it.

But you can’t assume that we’ll automatically bond with your hero and choose to identify with him or her just because we’re told to. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your hero, for all the reasons listed in the Laws.

We won’t go anywhere with your hero until he or she wins us over. Logically, we know that this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment that the audience forgets that this is fiction, and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms.

Funny: Usually, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, His Girl Friday, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to put-upon characters who are too scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: how can it be possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? The answer is that it takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes”: something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes. Here are two contrasting examples:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice has quickly been defined by her meekness (feeling nervous in the elevator surrounded by taller officers, meekly withdrawing from the room where they’re discussing the Buffalo Bill killings) and humbleness (saying “Yes, sir” a lot), and she’s clearly intimidated by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about throwing up gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “Save the Cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience, because most of us don’t go around saving cats, so it’s hard to identify with someone who does. As a result, the best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Hard-bitten bounty hunter Clint Eastwood has just toughed it out on a crawl across a desert with a perpetual nasty sneer on his face in the opening scene of For a Few Dollars More, but when he finally finds a little pool of water, he reluctantly lets his dog drink first. This is a clear-clut “save the cat” moment, but it works because it’s out of character. If this was a character who clearly spent his life helping dogs, we wouldn’t like him as much.
  • Likewise, Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. Again, if he had stolen the bread for the kids, that would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
  • Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally-disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary, because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in “The Hunger Games”, because she feels that she’s already hardened herself, and doesn’t want her more-innocent sister to lose her humanity as well, whether or not she survives the games.
An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You”. We now love this guy.
  • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices. Why is this whitebread Indiana kid pretending to be Italian?
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines himself to a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality. 
  • Ted on “How I Met Your Mother” describes to a girl in a bar his whole imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the titular hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience was ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In this case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I’d see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this guy/gal” before they give up and tune out.

1 comment:

PaulClarke said...

Great stuff Matt. After reading your article I managed to come up with my own moment of humanity for the script I'm working on.

Less than a quarter of a page and yet it completely creates the character in that single moment.

(At least it feels that way to me. Time will tell.)