Blog the cat, chapter 3 – Characters

Blog the Cat post index.
In Chapter Three of Save the Cat, “It’s about a guy who…” Blake Snyder talks about how important characters are to a movie idea and pitch. I’m starting to like these offbeat chapter titles, by the way.

I’m certainly predisposed to the idea that well developed characters are central to telling a story, and that the characters should fit the plot well. Blake starts by telling how good characters give the audience somebody to identify with, somebody to experience the story for them. He also covers how descriptive adjectives for your characters can make the logline more compelling, which is interesting especially since I’ve been hearing a lot about how important it is to avoid overusing adjectives in prose fiction, but a script logline is certainly a very different kind of writing, so it’s not too surprising that the rules should be different there.

He gives this checklist for character-related elements to look for in the logline:

  • A hero
  • An adjective to describe the hero
  • A bad guy
  • An adjective to describe the bad guy
  • A compelling, identifiable goal for the hero

I’m not quite sure how this would work for story genres that don’t usually have a ‘bad guy’, like Buddy Love, Institutionalized, or Rites of Passage.

Moving on, Blake goes into more detail talking about the main character, how even stories with a strong ensemble cast have to be ‘about someone.’ (Or maybe two different people.) The main character is who the audience can focus their attention on and root for, and who ‘carry the movie’s theme.’ (Whatever that means.)

And he goes into some detail, with interesting examples, about preliminary loglines that don’t really give a clear picture about who the main character should be, what he (or she) should be like, and how important it is to pick a main character who will make the most of the starting idea. In one nice little exercise, he takes the starting logline for ‘Ride Along’ and paints the two characters of the main character and his fiancee’s cop brother in two different ways: the main character as a timid teacher, and the cop as over-protective, then the cop as the incompetent scaredy-cat and the main character an ex-Green Beret. Both approaches have promise, but they send the basic movie idea in very different directions.

Checklist for picking your characters to suit a logline: They should…

  1. Offer lots of conflict in the situation
  2. Have a long way to go emotionally in their character arc
  3. Be demographically pleasing

…and Blake admits that he has some issues with the last point himself, having a tendency to write forty-something heroes that audiences won’t come to the theater for, until he tweaks them slightly.

Motivations for characters ‘should be primal’ – not just money, promotions, trade agreements, but survival, love, sex, protecting family, and the fear of death. (He didn’t mention love, but I’m sneaking it in because he talks around it.)

And don’t write for a particular actor or actress, in such a way that they’re the only one who could possibly pull off the role. Better to write on the generic side if possible, so that a wide range of competent actors could be cast. One good way to do this is to look for familiar archetypes in movies and other stories.

As an interesting twist, Blake mentions that in certain ensemble movies with criss-crossing character arcs, the ‘main character’ isn’t always human or easily identifiable as a person – for instance, in the Altman movies ‘Nashville’ and ‘Welcome to LA’, the cities are considered to be the star.

And at the end of the chapter, Blake goes back for a moment to discussing the logline, and the importance of updating it as you keep learning about your story idea and making it perfect. The idea of the logline as the ‘DNA code of your movie’ is an interesting one, that I’ll have to keep in mind as I prepare for Script Frenzy 2011.

And now we come to the Exercises for chapter three – in which Blake mentions going over ‘my list of genre movies’, which was mentioned back in chapter two, but I’ve been too busy to actually build up. But as far as I can tell, the point is just to pick movies that you’re very familiar with, so I’m going to go through them with the three movies that I’ve already done Beat Sheets for: Serenity, the Simpsons Movie, and the Princess Bride.

It’ll probably be good to identify genres for each of them first. Because it’s late and this is slowing me down, I’m only going to go through one exercise for each of them, probably the hardest and most important one

Serenity: This has some of the hallmarks of ‘Golden Fleece’, but I’d actually call it as Dude with a problem. Mal has a problem when the Alliance starts coming after River Tam, and though it seems like it’s a problem that he could get out of very easily by giving her up, that’s a problem on a different level, because though he didn’t realize it, Mal loves River, like she’s a daughter or a baby sister to him. Everything else in the plot of the movie follows from those extraordinary circumstances, and the heroice that Mal is forced into.

The Simpsons movie: And Homer Simpson is really a dude with a problem too – a problem that he started, but as chapter two suggested, many of the most powerful plots are started more from the main character internally than their external circumstances, and Homer’s problems are certainly extraordinary enough to fit this genre.

The Princess Bride: This one really is a golden fleece – it has the road trip aspect more centrally than the other two, and the episodic plot structure, and the main character discovering herself – in fact, there are three central characters who discover themselves, at least.

Exercise 3.1: Write out the logline for each movie. Give attention, and great adjectives, to the hero, the bad guy, and the primal goal.

Serenity: A cynical space freighter captain is pressured to surrender his crazy fugitive passenger to a steely government operative. Rather than abandon the girl who he’s come to care about, Mal risks the cannibal Reavers to find a forgotten planet and search there for the secret that could save her life.

The Simpsons Movie: When careless father Homer Simpson dumps a silo of pig poo into Springfield lake, it triggers an environmental crisis that a crazy government bureaucrat uses as an excuse to seal Springfield under a dome. Homer and his family blunder through an escape tunnel when the Springfielders mob their house, but Homer’s do-gooder wife Marge decides to leave him if he won’t go back and fight to save the town that she loves.

The Princess Bride: When beautiful Buttercup’s beloved stableboy suitor, Westley, is lost in a pirate attack, she swears to never love again – not even the canny Prince who eventually becomes her fiancee. But when a murder plot is foiled by a mysterious man in black, who turns out to be Westley back from the dead, Buttercup must choose between the stableboy and the prince – with her life and Westley’s hanging on her decision!

Notice that I picked Buttercup as the main character of ‘Princess Bride’, not Westley, which is a bit tricky. Buttercup is the less dynamic and engaging character, but the plot follows her continually though the midpoint of the movie, until Westley is sent to the Pit of Despair, when Buttercup thinks that he was taken back to his ship.

As a viewer, my attention was focused on Buttercup. I was rooting for her, when I wasn’t quite sure who was a good guy or a bad guy out of Inigo, Fezzik, Vizzini, (it seemed likely early on that he wasn’t a good guy,) or the man in black.

Now, I’m not quite sure how next week’s reading is going to go, since that’s the one part of the book that I’m already fairly well familiar with, the beat sheets, and have already written a rundown of the basic concept, which I posted when I did the beat sheet for ‘Serenity.’ So, if I don’t have much more to say, I may try to tackle chapter 5 for next Saturday: “Building the perfect beast.” Or I might take two weeks on that one, hmm…

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