MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

BLAND HEROES


X MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST was pretty good, though I really loved the last movie, FIRST CLASS... with it's origins story mixed with the always cool idea of the (fictional mutant) history behind an actual historical event. Though conspiracy theories in real life are usually the result of paranoia and mental illness, in fiction they are one of my favorite types of story, from PARALLAX VIEW to THEY LIVE. FIRST CLASS had elements of the Cold War *secretly* caused by the secret mutant wars that the government didn't want you to know about. FUTURES PAST seems to connect those 1960s versions of the characters with their present day versions through time travel.

Yeah, you're thinking: just another sequel! The reason why they make so many sequels in Hollywood? The original film was successful. and they believe the audience is ready for a second helping... or third... or fourth... or fifth! They made (the not so good) X-MEN 3 because X2: X-MEN UNITED made $85.9 million here in the US and $69.3 in other countries for a total of $155.2 million on its OPENING WEEKEND... then continued to do well for about a month in the summer. The last movie in the series, THE WOLVERINE, only opened in the USA with $53 million, even though it may be one of the best in the series... but that's attributed to the previous X MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE sucking so much. THE WOLVERINE ended up making $415 million worldwide in cinemas alone...which means it made a bunch of money. If you haven't seen last year's THE WOLVERINE, check it out!

But we're not talking about box office grosses, here, we're talking about *characters*... and how to create an interesting character...

I loved Nightcrawler in X-MEN 2! From the water-color wisps of blue when he teleports to his deeply religious beliefs (can you think of any other superhero who prays before battle?) to his prattling on about his great moments as a circus performer whenever he introduces himself to somebody. And that tail! Amazing how he whips it around, grabs a knife, and hands it to himself (or should that be "tails it to himself"?). Nightcrawler was so weird and fun that you just want to whole film to be about him!

Which might have been a problem, because Nightcrawler is only a minor character in the film. He's not the lead, but he's the most interesting guy on screen. This isn't a major problem because X-MEN UNITED is an ensemble story with a bunch of protagonists - so many that at times it seems like a super hero soap opera! More characters means less time with each - and that translates to short-handing conflict so that it often seems corny. Without the time to dig deep into the conflict, we only get the surface - the love triangles and entanglements without the deeper emotions. I have no iddea why superhero movies want to add more villains and more subplots... except maybe to pad the story. Always better to go *deeper* into character and story than to go *wider* with more characters and more story. Even if you are dealing with mutants. Find the spine of the story and deal with the characters who are part of that spine, not characters on the periphery.

The closest thing we have to a protagonist in X-MEN UNITED is Wolverine... and he's a pretty interesting character. Of course, he has a metal skeleton, can heal in seconds, and has razor sharp claws. Hard not to notice a guy like that. He's not the least bit bland... which is why he's the successful spinoff character. Sure, some of that may have to do with Hugh Jackman always being shirtless (which means guys who like X MEN movies can probably find a date to see the film with), but mostly because this is a character with a strong conflict raging inside of them. A character we can care about due to their flaws.

In many scripts (where the lead doesn't have metal claws), the protagonist can be completely over-shadowed by the supporting characters. These folks who are only onscreen for a couple of minutes steal the show like Nightcrawler. Since they don't have much screen time, we tend to make every second count for them... and we're also free to exaggerate their personalities. Next thing you know, the reader remembers that great hotel clerk in your script but can't recall your lead's name. What can we do to make sure our leads stay in the lead?

STRENGTHEN CHARACTER

Think of the movie AIRPLANE - Lloyd Bridges is just way out there ("Looks like I picked the wrong day to quit sniffing glue!") and makes an instant impression. But that doesn't prevent Robert Hayes from having a character and a bunch of funny bits (his drinking problem). The difference is - Bridges is concentrated, Hayes' character is spread out over the entire film... and his drinking problem is connected to his character arc (fear and guilt about being a pilot in the war, and George Zipp's death) which is connected to the plot conflict (they are on a plane that needs a pilot!).

The problem may be that you have colorful supporting characters and a bland lead. Make sure your lead has some color. If that means taking some of the sidekick's funny lines and re-assigning them to the lead, that's what you have to do. I've done that before many times. Nightcrawler is a funny character, but Wolverine isn't exactly a wallflower. Some of the funniest lines in the film come from Wolverine! He's not just the lead, he's also a fun character. You want your protagonist to have all of the best lines! What is Wolverine a professor of? When we get Wolverine and Nightcrawler in the same scene (on the plane) both are strong characters. Wolverine doesn't fall into the shadow of Nightcrawler - he's got zinger after zinger and ends up getting the last word in the conversation. Make sure your protagonist gets the good lines! A star is going to play that role, and they aren't going to want some day player to steal the movie from them. Just because *we* may be shy or introverted as writers is no reason to make your characters shy or introverted. Make them *interesting*.

STRENGTHEN EMOTIONS

Also make sure that your lead HAS a character - that he has some emotional struggle that we become involved with. Sometimes the big problem with a bland protagonist is that they are not involved in the conflict or that the conflict doesn't hit them on an emotional level... or that the reader is never put in the lead's shoes so we never EXPERIENCE what the protagonist experiences.

One reason why we shy away from creating emotional conflicts for our protagonists is that they are (secretly) us - so we are dealing with OUR emotional conflicts. So what do YOU fear? It's your story, your protagonist... so use your fears. Find an EMOTIONAL fear (rather than a fear of something physical) that fits the theme of your story.

I'd start with your concept and do a little self-analysis - why did that concept grab you? What fear of yours does it explore? That the system you believe in is wrong - and you are part of that wrong? That everything you have fought for is meaningless? Maybe you fear betraying your family (the system)?

You're searching for YOUR emotional fear... and that's going to be painful. But that's the kind of pain that makes your protagonist real, emotional, and strikes a chord with the audience. That fear is where you're going to find the theme - that fear is what the script is really about - that fear is going to dictate what happens in the script... every scene is going to explore your theme in some way (which is the protagonist battling their emotional fear). Fear is the key. If your protagonist doesn't have any emotional conflict they are just a cardboard cut out solving a problem. If you look at Wolverine in X2, he's a guy who can't remember his past. Doesn't know how he got to be the way he is. He's searching for the past... but he's afraid of what he'll find. He's afraid that he's really a monster. He's not the most social person in the world - always leaving, hiding, hunting. When he finally meets Stryker - his father in a strange way - he learns the truth... and it's not what he wants to hear. He's just an animal. A creature designed to kill. Everything he has feared is true!

It's Wolverine's fears about himself that make him an interesting character. He's not just a bland good guy - he's tortured. He's brooding. He's on a quest to discover his past - and scared of what he will find. If you look at all of the X-MEN characters, you'll find that fears define them. The bigger the fear, the more interesting the character. Compare Rogue to Storm. Rogue is more interesting because she fears hurting those that she loves... Storm just has cool powers. Rogue is like a sponge: everyone she touches; she removes their memories, their physical strength... and their life. They die an empty shell. Nice story if it ends there, but Rogue is also a young woman who is in love with a boy named David... and when she kisses him? Like Wolverine, everyone she touches dies. She is a young woman looking for love... but knowing that she can never love. One of the reasons why Nightcrawler is interesting is because he's deeply religious - and filled with guilt (and probably self-loathing). The emotional conflict, that fear, is what makes the characters interesting. Make sure your protagonist isn't just surface... give them an emotional conflict that will make them interesting and three dimensional.

THE WAR WITHIN

THE WOLVERINE (2013) is an introspective meditation on mortality, disguised as a superhero movie... and one of the first scenes shows the protagonist's emotional conflict. He wakes up in bed with the love of his life Jean Gray (who has died, so we know this is a dream) and she wants to embrace him, make love with him... but he tries to hold her back. When he gives in to his emotions and embraces her... his metal claws pierce her flesh and kill her. He has killed the woman he loves... the way he kills anything he loves. When he wakes up from this nightmare he is alone in some rugged Canadian Yukon cabin, having isolated himself from society so that he can never hurt anyone again. He is an immortal man whose life is a filled with regret and pain that he has caused... and there will never be any escape. It sounds cool to be a mutant whose body heals itself *no matter what happens to it*, but in the end you just experience tragedy after tragedy with no release. Your life is torture without the possibility of death. You will witness everyone you love's death... and it's likely that you may be responsible for that death... and have to live with that knowledge *forever*. Okay, folks, *that's* a conflicted character. That's someone who is not a pencil sketch, but a fully fleshed out person... and that's in a stupid superhero movie.

Look for the conflict simmering inside the character... that thing that is about to explode into external conflict. In the Protagonist Blue Book I have a chapter called Pulp Friction about the raging war within great protagonists, and that chapter title comes from the hitmen in PULP FICTION who are looking for peace and redemption... but are *violent killers*. How can someone be both? They are at odds with themselves! Their nature is at war with their goals, and they become fascinating characters due to this. They have conflicting goals. The way to make your protagonist memorable is to dig deep behind the surface and find that conflict within... that thing that makes them dimensional. The thing that makes sure when Wolverine and Nightcrawler are in scenes together, we still focus on Wolverine because we worry about that dude.

THE WOLVERINE doesn't just stop at that early scene, it explores this war within the protagonist in scene after scene... because the story selected *forces* Wolverine to confront these things. Back in World War 2 he was a prisoner in Nagasaki when the atom bomb was dropped, and he risked his life to save the only Japanese soldier who was kind to him. Decades later, Wolverine looks exactly the same... but that young Japanese guard is now a dying old Japanese billionaire who offers him a chance for mortality. A genetic swap so that the billionaire can live and Wolverine can be released from his pain and die. See how the story turns Wolverine's emotional problems to the surface? Turns the internal into the external (something we can see on screen)? Again and again Wolverine will be faced with choices that he must act upon that cut right to that war raging within himself. That conflict between a man who wants to be released from his pain... but also wants the joy of love and life that has eluded him. And yes, this is still a superhero movie.

Your Screenplay Checklist:

1) Give your lead character an emotional conflict - something that creates dramatic scenes.

2) Make sure that emotional conflict is a conflict: that they have conflicting goals and a war raging within.

3) Create the story which brings that emotional conflict to the surface in a series of difficult decisions.

4) Don't give all of the good lines and good character bits to the smaller roles - the star role needs to shine!

5) Make sure the conflict is *about* the protagonist, that he or she is not just a bystander in the story.

You want to make sure your protagonist is the most interesting character in the script - not some waiter who only appears in Scene 73!

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