Getting People to Like You(r Characters)

We’ve all been there: trying to impress your love interest, trying to convince your parents your tuition money hasn’t been wasted, or even just trying not to be picked last in dodge ball. It’s hard to get people to like you. So how can you convince them to root for your main character, especially if they’re an anti-hero or, well, frankly kind of a jerk? This won’t necessarily solve your problems, but here are a few tips.

Save the Cat

Save the Cat Cropped

This first one comes straight from Blake Snyder’s highly recommended Save the Cat. Simply put, have your protagonist save a cat or do some other altruistic thing to endear them to your audience. You could have them literally save a cat like Ripley in Alien, give bread to starving children like Aladdin in Aladdin, or take on charity cases like Lucy Kelson in Two Weeks Notice. In cases like Aladdin where you protagonist is a thief, your “save the cat” moment might be more necessary. But no matter what, people will find it easier to root for your characters if they actually seem like decent people.

Flaws

Even though we need to like them, your protagonist can’t be perfect. Generally, your protagonist’s going to have some major flaw. That’s the source of their “unconscious goal.” The thing that they need to fix that they don’t know they need to fix. Lightning McQueen must overcome his ego (Cars), Dianna must overcome her naiveté (Wonder Woman), and Alan Grant must overcome his fear of children (Jurassic Park).

But your characters also need smaller quirks whose primary function is to make them more human. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this the “six things that need fixing.” In Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer needs to learn to be a good father, but he also needs to learn how to cook and struggles to find a new job. He goes through the same kind of shit we do. Indiana Jones may be the coolest professor ever, but he’s terrified of snakes. These character flaws don’t always affect the plot, but they do make your characters more endearing.

Primal Struggles

This is another Save the Cat tip. Snyder uses it in reference to the premise, but a relatable premise creates relatable characters. As Snyder explains it, your premise should be easy enough to explain to a caveman. It’s primal: revenge, trying to impress a love interest, trying to escape a monster. These are things we can all relate to. Maybe you’ve never had to run from a T. rex, but you may have had to run from Rex. It was terrifying, and you can relate.

Ever been a renown neurosurgeon by day who transitions into a destructive narcissist at exactly 8:25 every night? Me neither. I’m not saying it’s the only reason Do No Harm had the lowest ratings for a primetime drama premier ever, but it certainly didn’t help. It’s hard to relate to a character that’s so specific and so bizarre.

Familiar in Fantasy

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do fantasy. Far from it. Fantasy and science fiction give writers immense creative freedom to explore new worlds and examine what it means to be human in unique contexts. Otherworldly characters do risk alienating the audience. I mean, who knows what it’s like to be a vampire or a hobbit? But there are still ways we can relate to these characters.

The key is to focus on the similarities between your audience and your subject matter. I don’t know anything about the blood feud between vampires and werewolves, but I can relate to forbidden love. I’ve never had to throw a ring of power into Mount Doom, but I’ve had to face difficult situations that even my closest fur-footed friends could not help me with.

A few months ago, Merriam-Webster posted this fantastic article looking at the different artistic approaches between Star Trek and Star Wars. Trust me, I know a lot of trekkies, but Star Trek doesn’t have quite the same mass following as the Force. The article’s definitely worth a look (and it really emphasizes the importance of diction, which I discuss here).

Empathy

All of these tricks have one goal: building empathy between your characters and your audience. You want your audience to go on an emotional journey with your characters. That’s empathy. And it’s different than sympathy.

If you hear about a successful lawyer who was diagnosed with AIDS, outed for being gay, and then fired for being outed, you might feel bad for him. That’s sympathy. But you don’t know what it’s like to be him. In 2017, AIDS isn’t as scary as it used to be and most people really don’t care if you’re gay. But when you watch Philadelphia, you go on a journey with Andrew Beckett. You learn what it was like to get AIDS in the early 90s. You experience the fear and the stigmatism. That’s empathy.

To illustrate the point further, consider two of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. In The Sixth Sense, we feel empathy for Dr. Malcolm Crowe. We go on a journey with him. We, the audience, learn that Dr. Crowe is (spoiler alert) dead at the same time he does. It’s just as shocking to him as it is to us. That’s why it works.

In The Village, however, something felt distinctly off. There was just something about The Village that didn’t add up. Most of the characters knew that the village and the monsters were a trick. You know who didn’t know? The audience. It was a gimmick.

Audiences felt taken advantage of and they didn’t like it. Ivy Walker, the blind main character, never learned the truth. It’s hard to go on a journey with someone who doesn’t go on a journey. Sure, you might feel bad for her. You may have sympathy for her. She does live with a bunch of delusional, conniving sociopaths, after all. But it’s difficult to experience empathy with her because you’re going on completely different journeys.

“But wait!” some of you are saying. “Isn’t that just dramatic irony? You know where the audience knows something that the main character doesn’t?” Why yes. Yes it is. In this clip from Harold Lloyd’s 1930 film Feet First, you can see dramatic irony in action. While he’s stuck in the sack, he doesn’t know that he’s being hoisted up on scaffolding. The same is true about the cigar that is thrown out a window and later dropped in the man’s hat and the bucket of paint that is knocked off of the scaffolding.

But you only get an effective emotional payout—you only get empathy—when Lloyd and the other characters come to the same realization as you.

Othello is one massive play of dramatic irony. We all know Iago is trying to ruin Othello’s life. Othello has no idea. When he finds out, his life is destroyed and Iago gets his comeuppance. If Othello was just about someone’s life turning to shit, it wouldn’t be a very good play. It’s the emotional journey and Othello’s realization that he’s been duped that make Othello a great tragedy.

If Ivy Walker learned the truth about her asshole parents, flipped them the bird, and wandered out of the village into the real world like Truman Burbank at the end of The Truman Show, it might of worked. Probably not, but it would have been better.

When you get right down to it, it’s hard to get people to like you, especially with all of your flaws, if you’ve only got ninety minutes to do it, and you’re not even a real person. But these tips will point you in the right direction.

Unity of Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring)

A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.

Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.

Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.

This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.

The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.

That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.

This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.

And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.

Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.

If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.

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Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.

A Roundabout Review of “Medici: Masters of Florence”

New screenwriters will often ask if they have to follow “the rules.” The short answer is, “Yes.” Why? Keep reading.

There are some great scripts that break “the rules.” But there are many, many, many terrible scripts that break “the rules,” and it’s easier to understand why the rules exist by watching some of these terrible movies (and TV shows). Medici: Masters of Florence, currently available on Netflix, is one of them. Here are some of my thoughts organized with the same headings used for industry standard coverage.

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STRUCTURE

You’ve probably heard of the three-act structure. I alluded to it in my previous post about Extraordinary Worlds. The purpose of the first act (AKA “The Beginning”) is to establish the characters and their needs. It builds empathy between the characters and the audience and gives the audience an idea of where this script is headed.

Medici starts by killing off Dustin Hoffman. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know why we should like him. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s being killed off. We immediately jump to Richard Madden (apparently Hoffman’s son) who is trying to decide how to respond to his political rivals. Again, it’s a little unclear who Madden is or why we should like him.

Hoffman’s death is cut together with scenes of Hoffman’s own funeral making the opening sequence even more confusing. Once we establish that A) Hoffman was the Medici patriarch, B) he is dead, C) Madden is his son, and D) Madden must now fill his ample shoes, Medici immediately jumps to a flashback.

In general, flashbacks are poor storytelling. Scripts are written in present tense because they happen now, and now is important. Flashbacks tell the audience that whatever happened then is more important than what is happening now. Well if then is more important than now, why not have your script take place then?

Although Madden’s hair is different and Hoffman is inexplicably alive, there’s no real way to distinguish now from then, continuing Medici’s theme of baffling confusion. This confusion is the bigger sin than merely using a flashback. The flashback not only fails to contribute to Madden’s contemporary story (his appointment to the signoria), but makes the show difficult to follow. And just when you thought the show was about to buckle down and do some proper storytelling, it dives into a montage.

Montages, like flashbacks, are generally poor storytelling. They can be used for a variety of reasons, but are most frequently used to compress time. In sports movies, you can’t show your heroes playing all 162 regular season games, but you can show a montage. When your warrior is training for the final battle, you don’t bore your audience with thirty minutes of calisthenics and meditation, you use a montage. In the pilot episode of Medici when Madden falls hopelessly in love with a laundress and drives a rift between him and his father, you should probably play that out for a few episodes. Well, they used a montage, and it was laughable. How can we possibly care about the love of his life when she’s only on screen for three minutes?!

Similarly (back to now), a surgeon who performed an illegal autopsy on Hoffman blackmails Madden. Madden informs his consigliere to pay the surgeon 100 Florins. When the consigliere pays the money, the surgeon demands 1000 Florins. Seems like a pretty important scene, right? We never get to see it! Madden’s consigliere just tells him about it in painful exposition a few scenes later. Why wouldn’t you use that scene?!

To sum up structure, there’s no real first act, the story is difficult to follow, the pacing is wildly off, and important scenes are not included in the script. Moving on…

CHARACTER

Hoffman and Madden may develop into interesting, likeable characters, but they certainly don’t start out that way. Madden is dour and brooding. Hoffman is, well, dead. In the flashback he kind of seems like a jerk. Maybe they’ll redeem themselves, but I’m not sure if I’ll watch long enough to see that. (Not all protagonists need to be likable, but they do need a redeeming quality. This is where Blake Snyder got the name for his fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat.)

Madden’s lover (and most of the tertiary characters) are paper-thin. She’s posing for a group of artists only partially clothed. Despite all of the other eligible young men in the room, she and Madden are instantly smitten with each other. This leads to the aforementioned three-minute sex montage. (Now that I think about it, maybe it was just three minutes of sex. Again, the story was hard to follow.) In any case, it’s not the kind of deep reflection on the human condition that leads to memorable characters. Oh, by the way, she’s scared out of Madden’s life a few minutes later by his dad’s henchmen. (Another scene that is only talked about, not shown.)

There’s a brother, a not particularly intimidating antagonist, the consigliere, a cameo by the artist Donatello, and a handful of other forgettable characters who take themselves too seriously. The only entertaining person is Steven Waddington who plays a cheeky cardinal who bribes his way to the papacy.

DIALOGUE

But wait, it gets worse! If you’ve ever studied Uta Hagen (It’s bonus credit, but I do recommend reading Respect for Acting), you know that actors need motivation. When they lack motivation, your scene runs a very high risk of exposition. After all, if your characters have no motivation, they have nothing to do, and will just end up talking.

In Medici, there’s the awful scene where Hoffman’s rival sort of threatens Madden, but mostly explains that the signoria is rigged. Then there’s the scene where Madden’s wife explains that she’s been a loyal wife who wants to be part of his business decisions. But the one that really takes the cake is the scene between Hoffman and Madden about Hoffman’s legacy.

In it, Hoffman waxes philosophic about his legacy, complains about Madden’s desire to be an artist (another terrible example where “showing” would have been more powerful than “telling”), and explains his scheme for gaining power. Why have this elaborate, dull conversation full of exposition? Because it’s the middle ages and they have nothing better to do when travelling from place to place?

Now they could have been trying to convince someone to join their cause. Hoffman could have been scolding his son wasting resources on art. Or they could have been doing something visually interesting while having a boring conversation (another great tip from Blake Snyder that he calls “Pope in the pool”). Instead, it’s five mind-numbing minutes of exposition. C’mon, people.

The other thing that really kills the scene (while this isn’t in the writer’s purview), is Hoffman’s accent. Everyone else in the series sounds like they’re doing Shakespeare. Hoffman sounds like they pulled him out of a dock in the Bronx. The tough guy persona could work well, but the juxtaposition is distracting.

UGH…

On top of all of this, there was a painful and distracting soundtrack. It was almost as though they realized the show was horrible and were trying to draw your attention away from it.

With the difficultly of following the story, lack of empathy for the characters, and laughable dialogue, it was really hard to care. I ended up reading about the Medici on Wikipedia—which I found much more interesting—and frankly don’t know how the episode ended. More importantly, I don’t care.

This may not be a glowing review, but I do recommend you watch the pilot episode of Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s much easier to understand “the rules” when you see what happens if you break them.