Screenwriters must Embracing Their Inner S-O-B
“Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
I know what the screenwriting books say. That you need a main character for your story that’s likable. Relatable. Empathetic.
Sorry. But that’s to-tal horse shit!
Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) in “True Grit” is a bitter, obese sociopath. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) in “The French Connection” is a corrupt, maniacal police officer willing to do ANYTHING to catch his target. Michael Coreleone (good, old Al Pacino) in “The Godfather” — is the MOST evil person in a story filled with folks who decapitate horses and send dead fish parcels.
You do NOT have to center your stories around relatable characters who are kind to puppies, test well with focus groups and would pass a Government-mandated background check.
In fact — in these morally murky and economically uncertain times — I believe the less conventional and empathetic your main character, the better.
But…your hero MUST have one thing: Drive.
And frickin’ LOTS of it.
Your hero must be driven — whether by greed, jealousy, revenge, an obsession with Chinatown or a belief that “men and women can’t be friends” — to sacrifice MORE and compromise LESS than anybody else in your story. (And that includes your villain.)
Because the only way your hero will scratch the surface of their potential as a compelling story character — and overcome all the crazy, insane obstacles you’re going to put in their way — is to be mad. Obsessed. Uncompromising. Driven.
This doesn’t mean your hero needs to be a raving lunatic or get into a shouting match in every scene. (We aren’t writing a community college one-act play, after all.)
But it does mean they NEED to have an obsessive drive to acquire something tangible, and be prepared to let nothing — even themselves — stand in their way.
“I’m Gonna Make Him an Offer He Can’t Refuse”
The trouble us writers have in creating driven, obsessed characters is…well…we’re writers.
We like to stay in the shadows. Peek behind the curtain. Hide behind our Dell laptop and triple-shot lattes.
We aren’t (usually) type-A folks — unless our name is Joe Esterzhas — and we often see life in shades of nuance and ambiguity.
Which is great: This sensitivity to the nuance and ambiguity of life is what makes us the perfect vehicle for great stories. (And why professional athletes and talk-show hosts make such shitty writers.)
But save the nuance and the ambiguity for your third act. Or your 14th rewrite.
When you’re in the trenches of early story development, it’s best to make strong, bold creative choices. And the best way I know how to do this is to find that inner SOB inside you that’s just dying to get out. (Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of people to tame your inner hell-beast later.)
So, here are FOUR tips to help you find passionate, uncompromising characters that’ll make perfect vehicles for your story:
Inner SOB Tip No.1: What’s YOUR Chinatown?
Most (good) stories start from some kind of obsession or strong belief the writer has. So start off by asking yourself:
What the hell makes me driven?
What would I be willing to give up everything for?
What do I THINK is worth stepping on toes, ruffling feathers and kicking serious ass to accomplish?
And, please, try to make it specific. I know you’re passionate about FREEDOM and JUSTICE. And, though commendable, those are vague and un-filmable concepts.
Go deeper, get emotional. Maybe it’s “putting serial rapists behind bars,” or “spying on the neighbors because you’re convinced their Communists” or “ridding the world of any movies based on a Milton Bradley board game.”
Action Step: Come up with a list of at least THREE topics you feel STRONG about and would be willing to step way outside your comfort zone to achieve.
Inner SOB Tip No.2: Turn the Volume Knob Up to 11
Now it’s time to go to light speed. For each of your three topics, take those topics to their most logical — and illogical — extreme.
What would a character passionate about this topic, and with absolutely no compromise in their DNA, do?
How would they talk?
What do they obsess about?
What’s their apartment look like?
How are their personal and professional relationships?
What do they feel is the ONLY, reasonable thing for them to do?
Does your main character hunt paroled rapists on the street vigilante-style with a crossbow? Or does your main character convert their studio apartment into an ad hoc surveillance center?
Action Step: Try to come up with two or three different character variations — and what they feel they HAVE to accomplish. The more obsessed and extreme you go with these characters, the better. Your story (and your pocketbook) will thank you.
Inner SOB Tip No.3: Give ‘Em a Crazy, Hectic Job
This one may seem a bit unimportant, but it shocks me how many newbie screenwriters will give their main character — you know, the person they hang all 97 pages of their story on — some dull, boring, and visually-uninteresting occupation.
Like professor. Or actor.
Trust me: NOBODY cares about writers. (In fact, most people resent how much “free time” they think we have.)
And unless that professor, actor or writer also happens to be obsessed with nuclear launch codes or the whereabouts of the kidnapped president or the unjust murder of their roommate…
Then leave the “desk job” until AFTER you get your three-picture deal at Universal. Instead, pick an occupation — or story world — that promises:
- Visual Conflict
- Constant Tension
- Numerous Obstacles
- Bureaucracies (Of any kind)
- Lots and Lots of Problems
And when I say “job,” I don’t mean this literally. Being a housewife is a job. Running the church bake sale is a job. Caring after your disabled parent is a job.
Just make sure you choose something that is fraught with conflict and tension. (And bonus points if it’s a “job” world that you know something about.)
Action Step: Come up with 2-3 occupations for your main character that promises (visual) conflict.
Inner SOB Tip No.4: Put a Fork in the Road
Now that you’ve got a passionate, obsessed character — with a hard-core, visually-interesting work or home environment…
It’s now time to put someone — or something — in their way. Namely your villain, your baddie, your antagonist.
Your main opposition to the main character.
Now this character doesn’t have to be evil or maniacal…or even human. They just need to STAND directly in the way of what your opponent wants. Either by a) wanting to acquire the SAME THING your main character wants or b) wanting to derail your main character at every turn.
Either way, crafting a good opponent is the GLUE of your story. It’s also the most fun you’ll have as a screenwriter. (And lets you plumb your Freudian sadistic tendencies.)
Because THIS opponent is your main character’s worst nightmare. And like every nightmare they come from somewhere deep in the consciousness of the person dreaming.
But the opponent has to CRAFTED to hit your main character where it hurts. Darth Vader is an awesome villain for Luke Skywalker. (Half-robot dictator vs. Rural farm boy) But notice how different that battle would be if it was Darth Vader squaring off against Han Solo? Or Michael Coreleone? Or Dirty Harry? (Not so bueno.)
So, come up with two or three obsessed, uncompromising opponents who will bring out the best — and worst — in your main characters. Doing this will make things like screenplay structure and act breaks and story construction a hell of a lot easier. (Which is what we’ll cover in the next chapter.)
Action Step: Come up a kick-ass opponent that stands directly in the way of what your character wants.
Think About It:
Brainstorm three topics, or issues, you have very little compromise over. Express it as something you feel SHOULD be done. Be specific.
Create two or three possible characters based on hyper exaggerated versions of these issues. Go as far as you can with it.
Come up with visually-interesting occupations for each of these character variations. Avoid writers at your creative peril.
For each character, construct an equally-obsessed opponent who can stand in their way at every turn. Be sure the opponent only WINS if your hero loses.