Who's the Main Character? - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Q. I know in my query letter I'm supposed to talk about my main character, but I don't think my screenplay has a main character. It's about a father, son and mother in the middle of [dramatic situation].
Most stories do have a main character. It's sometimes a question of figuring out who that is. Some stories may have a different main character from the person whose POV you're telling the story from.

The main character is generally the person who's making the moral choice in the third act. Usually it's the person who's motivating the action in the third act. It's usually the person who's taking the risk, and, if someone changes, it's usually that person.

Sometimes you may find you've written a screenplay about the wrong person, perhaps because you identify with that person, or because they're the 30 year old guy who could be played by a star. If you find that your hero isn't making the discovery / motivating the action / making the moral choice, maybe you should rewrite your screenplay from the point of view of the person who is. It may not require all that much work -- just tweaking the scenes so they're from the new protagonist's point of view.

Star casting can throw off the point of view of a movie. Take WHAT LIES BENEATH.

/* spoiler */

The movie is about Michele Pfeiffer, who's married to Harrison Ford. She starts to see ghostly weirdness in her house, which makes her begin to think that Harrison Ford had an affair with a girl and then murdered her, and covered up the murder. It turns out she's right. Then Ford tries to murder her, but he's drowned by the ghost of the girl.

The movie seems to have got made because Harrison Ford wanted to play a villain.

It's not a very interesting ending because it's hinted heavily from the beginning that Harrison Ford is a bad guy. So when he turns out to be one, there's not much movement. The only question is whether he's going to be able to kill Michele Pfeiffer.

There's a much more interesting story that fits the first two acts much better. That's where you discover that the reason Michele Pfeiffer is having visions of the murdered girl is because she murdered the girl out of jealousy over the affair, and then blocked the memory... and the reason she thinks Harrison Ford covered it up is because he did cover it up ... to save their marriage.

But, then Harrison Ford doesn't get to play a villain. Instead he's a supporting character. You're not going to get Harrison Ford to play a supporting character in a Michele Pfeiffer movie. More importantly, a studio's not going to ask him to.

I have no idea if the original script had the more interesting reveal. But it should have. Pfeiffer is the central character. But as written, all she does is discover the murder and then nearly get murdered herself. She's not really motivating the action. She's motivated by ghosts and then chased by the villain. She doesn't even get to kill Harrison Ford herself.

Whereas if she discovers that she's the murderer, then she has to come to terms with her own guilt, and decide what to do about it -- turn herself in? Dump Ford? Kill herself? Acknowledge her guilt but have a tearful reconciliation with her husband?

/* end spoiler */

Make sure your main character is the right one for your story; and if not, rethink how you're telling the story.

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5 Comments:

What if the main character doesn't become interesting, compelling or entertaining until the end and all the drama centers around that character but not from their POV? What if their one interesting moment happens at the end?

In other words, all the action and other characters revolve around the main character to generate the pivotal moment. Up until that pivotal moment, though, that main character is blah and kind of boring. Do you think not having their POV until the pivotal moment would be cheap, too surprising or something of that sort?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:39 PM  

Respectfully, I couldn't disagree with you more. Theatre has proven for centuries that you can have a dramatic story with no main character, or rather, with two or four, or a whole village.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:37 PM  

Vociferous, I think it is very rare to find an effective dramatic story with no main character. There are ensemble pieces, but even they usually have a character whose point of view most informs the piece. There are counterexamples even to this, but I think they're quite rare. And as for "centuries," I think the idea of a true ensemble piece is pretty 20th C.

The Lex: I didn't delete your comment because it's an interesting question. I think if the interesting stuff is one character in acts one and two, and another in act three, then you're probably trying to tell two stories. Find a way to keep the main character interesting all the way through. If he's blah and boring for two acts, you won't have an audience for the last act.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:52 PM  

That'll teach me to type before thinking.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:12 PM  

FUENTEOVEJUNA, 1619.
The Mahabharata 200 B.C.

Just a couple of examples off the top of my head. I'm just tired of that old 'You should always have...' in discussions on film and television. I don't mean to sound harsh or to take it out on you or anything. I just want to see TV and film writing grow more.

One thing theatre has proven over the ages is that whenever someone comes along and says 'you should always do this...' some crazy young firebrand proves them wrong. And that's not a bad thing.

Maybe there's a way to tell a compelling film with two or three or no main characters. I'm personally not about to attempt it, but hey, if you can imagine it and make it work, go for it.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:01 AM  

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