It’s been said that character is plot. What does that mean? Simply put, the choices the lead character makes drives the direction the story takes. In movies with weak plots, stuff happens and characters do things, but the two aren’t necessarily related. Take your typical slasher film–an anonymous killer stalks a group of teenagers in a desolate location, killing them off one-by-one while they are generally clueless about what’s happening around them. The protagonist is essentially the last one left alive (usually the virginal girl), but does not take an active role in the actual plot; she’s a passive character, allowing actions happen to her rather than causing actions to happen around her. With strong stories, every decision the protagonist makes directly relates to everything else that happens afterward.
Let’s take a look at one of the most successful movies ever made, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. We have a great white shark lurking in the waters around vacation spot Amity Island, chomping on random swimmers. After the first victim is found, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches to prevent any other injuries or death. He succumbs to the pressure of small-town politics enacted by the mayor and business owners afraid that the negative press would have a devastating impact on their income, so he allows the beaches to remain open. That decision causes the rest of the movie to happen. If he had followed his instincts, no one else would’ve been killed; with the food supply cut off, the shark likely would have gone elsewhere; and the movie would’ve ended there. Instead, a little boy becomes shark food, and the mother–rightly so–blames Brody for his death. His decision (or indecision) led to a frenzy of shark hunters clogging up the waters and creating more of a mess. This misguided attempt to protect swimmers from the shark did nothing to stop another attack that threatened both Brody’s and the mayor’s sons. Brody then insists that the mayor sign an order to hire renowned shark killer Quint (Robert Shaw), and he decided to go with Quint and ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to sea on the Orca. This brings us to the last third of the movie where the three men square off against the giant fish. Every single moment in that film after the initial attack is a result of the choices Brody makes. At any point, if he made a different choice, the story would’ve been much different.
When writing a screenplay, the author must make the decision as to who the protagonist is. Sometimes that’s a difficult call if you have an ensemble, but ultimately there is one character who rises above the rest that the story is truly about. Once you determine that, then you can start developing the plot. Who is this person? What are his/her desires and goals? How does this person react when you throw obstacles in the way? What growth must take place within the character by the end of the journey?
As an exercise, throw out a generic set-up. For argument’s sake, we’ll use the situation of a person who gets lost in the woods after a car breaks down. Who is this person? We have to figure that out through a series of choices: male or female; age; race; economic status; education level; and personality traits. By randomly making choices from this list, we can build a character–16-year-old white female high school student from a middle class environment who is impulsive, critical of others, and sarcastic. Now that we have an idea of who our protagonist is, we can make assumptions as to how she got into our situation. Given her age, she probably was driving herself but did not have the experience to remember things like checking the gas gauge before heading out on a trek down a lonely, wooded road. Her car runs out of gas, leaving her stranded. Maybe she’s out of range for her cell phone to work, or because of a quick-tempered argument with her parents, they took it away from her as a punishment. She thinks she’s intelligent, but doesn’t think through the situation, so instead of heading back down the road that would eventually lead to civilization, she decides to cut through the woods to shave off miles. In doing this, she finds herself hopelessly lost and wandering in circles. She must then make other decisions as to what to do when night falls, when she gets hungry, or when animals approach her. Each of these choices changes the next leg of her journey. We can assume that by the time she reaches safety, she has learned a lesson about thinking thoroughly before acting. Now, what would happen to this story if the character is a 45-year-old black man from the inner city who never completed high school but is level-headed, has common sense, and is a loving family man? What if the protagonist in that same situation is an 73-year-old Japanese woman who is a high-profile poet suffering from depression and who is unfamiliar with the country the story takes place? The story details are countless, even using the same scenario.
Many people complain that Hollywood has run out of ideas. Others point out that there are only so many stories in existence. The fact is, that variables in stories are countless given the number of options you have in terms of your main character. Once you figure out who that person is and then place various choices in front of your character, your plot will take care of itself due to how he or she reacts in the face of conflict.
Read more musings on film and television by Jamie Helton at FilmVerse.
This article was originally published at FilmVerse on October 5, 2011. Republished with permission.
copyright © 2011 Jamie Helton
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