Here's an interesting conundrum. I'm reading a screenplay by a very competent writer. He's set up a situation where the hero is being menaced by thuggish people and there's no one he can turn to. He's helpless. That sets up, I assume, the basic problem of the screenplay.
My problem is that when the hero is jammed in a corner like this and all he's going to be able to do is suck it up, while I sympathize, I don't particularly want to spend more time with him and his problems. It's a pure downer. But it is dramatically effective to place the hero in a real jam.
What I'm suggesting to the writer is to make the thugs more fun to watch. They're brutal, but they're not much fun. I think we need them to be quirkier, stranger, more fun to watch. Think of Gary Busey in the dress in Under Siege
: he's another insane killer like Mr. Joshua. But he's an insane killer in a dress
. (Which of course makes it brilliant when later, just after he's murdered the captain, he notices that his efficiency report recommends him for a psychiatric evaluation. Still in a dress and makeup, he turns to Tommy Lee Jones and says, "Do I look like I need a psychiatric evaluation?" And Tommy Lee gets to do his patented raised eyebrow and say, "Not at all.")
Another direction would be to give us the full humanity of the thugs and give us a sense why they're beating up the hero. We still won't like them but at least we're getting insight into them.
Be efficient in setting up your jeopardy. But don't be so streamlined that there's no fun in it for the audience. Make the villains fun to watch even if you wouldn't personally enjoy their company.
Also, don't let your hero ever be completely helpless. Helpless is a repulsive frame of mind. No one wants to be around helpless. Even if your hero is getting killed, at least he could try to josh his way out of a bad situation. Or fight against the odds. Anything that tells us he's not a loser.
This may be completely backwards, but when I'm looking to give a character an angle, I randomly choose four character traits from a long list of adjectives.
Once I've selected the traits, I'll craft the character around them. It's sort of like the adage about not being able to choose family.
Sometimes characters I conceive tend to be too abstract. But doing it this way gives a clear template, a personality. It keeps me from wanting to change a character halfway through the process.
Just a thought.
Look at the new Bond film, Casino Royale: The hero (007) is in some really bad positions, but he keeps on ticking, like the energizer bunny. You have to put one or three bullets in his head to stop him.
Look at the baddies, completly entertaining and fun to watch. The lead baddie tears blood from his eyes and gambles some seriously connected money on something he thought was a sure bet; he was wrong.
I'm with you on this on both points.
The second you have a two dimensional character in a film, even a minor one, the film suffers.
I'm also painfully aware that in the vast majority of spec scripts, people's protagonists aren't interesting enough. They are far too passive -- things happen to them, they often becomes victims of circumstances.
And you're right, victims aren't heroic.
Another way of ramping up a scene that has been done a million times (hero being attacked by thugs) is to eradicate every cliche from it.
There's a great example of this in Miller's Crossing:
Tom is about to be beaten by a thug.
Thug hangs up his jacket.
Thug bears down on Tom.
Tom hits Thug in the face with his chair.
Thug grabs his face, his feelings hurt "Jesus, Tom!"
Thug staggers out of room, leaving Tom bemused.
Now in that scene, two unusual things happen -- firstly we think the hero is about be beaten up, but his futile gesture of lashing out with a chair actually works -- and then secondly the Thug is offended that his mate Tom has hit him with a chair -- after all he's only doing his job.
What makes that scene work is a high quality of character development and the fact that the cliches were eradicated from the writing.
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