My blog has moved!

You will be automatically redirected to the new address. If that does not occur, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

When Good Characters Do Dumb Things

Once in awhile I see scripts in which characters do unbelievably dumb things. Like go down into the basement to check on that weird sound they just heard. Or keep their back to a window as they discuss the weird sound they just heard outside [insert crashing glass and bloody screams here]. Or opening the door two minutes after a crank phone call had been received. It’s moments like these when I think – does your character ever GO to the movies?? Come on!!

So just a little something to bear in mind – make sure to write your moments very organically for your character so that they appear to have a three-dimensional consciousness and awareness of the world outside of their story. Truth be told, if you heard a weird sound in your basement and weren’t the actual writer of this story and so thusly are not aware that yes, the basement contains a gruesome monster who sucks on bones for dinner, sure, you might go check it out. You have to, right?

But give your character credibility in the moment so that the sound in the basement is not a simple mechanism to get the character maimed or killed but something connected to the story and to the character overall.

Seriously - if you heard a big thump in your basement would you go right straight down there to check it out? Or would you wait to see if you heard it again? Would you go down with a knife? NO because you've seen too many horror movies and you KNOW bad things will happen. Most likely, you'd call the police and then exit the house. Or lock yourself in the bathroom. Or call the neighbors.

Particularly in horror scripts, newer writers tend to conveyor-belt the victims. Five kids rode the bus to the remote town preyed upon by a rabid Yeti - one will come out. And the first four will get knocked off in a very orderly fashion, every 10 pages or so. And in order to get them out of the way until we get to the main event – our hero’s confrontation with Yeti – writers will make the first four victims good and dumb. Huh? What’s that snoring sound coming from the ice cave?

Even though the world you create for your characters is unique and self-contained, there is still a larger world that we all identify with and reference, consciously or unconsciously when we watch a movie. In a horror movie set in the present, we have to assume the characters have seen a horror movie or two in their lifetimes and so would not peer too closely into the darkened window which overlooks the haunted lake. I mean – come on people!

Yes, it is fun while watching a horror movie to squirm while the character gets closer and closer to danger – or it gets closer to them – remember the shower scene in ARACHNAPHOBIA? Open your eyes! Open your eyes! Spider coming!! There’s a certain deliciousness to that feeling. But if your character seems plain dense, then their death means absolutely nothing and your audience might even guffaw at it.

So make sure your characters have a modicum of intelligence while in dangerous situations – or write your characters so well that we believe that their being in a dangerous situation isn’t stupidity but something much more interesting, like a mixed up death wish. Anyone see the wonderful documentary GRIZZY MAN? While the intelligence of Timothy Treadwell might be arguable, clearly there was something pretty complicated going on that lead to his demise.

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on Twitter or subscribe via RSS.


velysai said...

And then there's those characters who are so annoying right out the gate that you want them to die, like Kate Beckinsale's character in VACANCY.

Odile S said...

Although I'm more into writing non-fiction and more a content suplier than a writer, I find your advice makes me think.

Steve Axelrod said...

The sad thing isn't that such absurd moments crop up in hopelessly bad and unshootable screenplays by deluded amateurs -- you sort of expect that. The truly depressing fact is that they appear in dozens and dozens of actual movies made by supposed professionals. The third act of Disturbia comes to mind as a glaring example. No one behaves in a remotely plausible way for the entire last twenty minutes.
This brings up the larger question, one that must have occurred to every struggling screenwriter: what happens to all those exigent and uncompromising critiques we hear, when a movie actually gets made? Why do the standards only apply to us? Do all those script readers and studio executives who rejected our scripts because our heroine didn't call the cops when any sentient human being would have, just turn their brains off when a name actor or some foreign money is involved or a favor is being called in? And if so, is that really the best system? Should standards only be aplied at the bottom? Shouldn't they get more rigorous at the top? But people are lazy and power corrupts ... even the power to get a movie made.