THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
"Character Driven" is one of those phrases that gets knocked around meetings and message boards a lot, and has seemed to have lost its original meaning - a story that is driven by the character and not an outside plot incident. There are very few films where the *characters* actually drive the story rather than some outside element. HAMLET may have a great lead character and does a great job exploring that character, but the story is driven by the murder of Hamlet's father - not Hamlet himself. Most movies and plays and even most popular novels are driven by outside elements. Because movies are stories told visually, they tend to be about *things happening to people*.
"Character Driven" has suddenly come to mean "a film that has characterization", and that's just sloppy thinking and actually is a major disservice to cinema. *Every* film should have characterization - that's what happens when characters react to the outside elements of the plot. CHINATOWN has a very complex lead character, who has to make some huge moral (not to mention legal) decisions. This guy goes through hell by the end of the film - opening himself up only to get his heart torn out over and over again. We could talk about the character of Jake Gittes all day... but what happens to Jake has everything to do with the plot of CHINATOWN and his reactions to it. The plot - the events - drives that film, and Jake is a passenger hanging on to the dashboard for dear life.
Plot and character are tied together. A good film (script) (concept) (napkin note) is about a character who is forced to deal with emotionally charged character-type problems in order to solve that external plot problem (the thing we can see on that big screen). He can't solve the plot problem without dealing with the character/emotional problem. If we start to incorrectly use the term "Character Driven" to describe movies with good characterization, not only does that seem to let films with poor characterization or no characterization (you know the films I'm talking about) off the hook, we also remove *actual* character driven films from consideration - and they may disappear. In the Protagonist Blue Book I have an a chapter on FIVE EASY PIECES (also starring Jack Nicholson) which is one of many completely character driven films from the 1970s where there is no outside event driving the story.
Another favorite film of mine from this period is KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (also starring Nicholson) which also has no real external plot driving the story: it's about the relationship between two brothers during a trip to Atlantic City. All about the characters with nothing else in the driver's seat.
A DRIVEN CHARACTER
If you are writing a true character driven screenplay, you need a driven character.
The conflict in a character driven screenplay still needs to be externalized - we are watching a movie. We need *visible conflict*. You don't need one single antagonist if the protagonist is the problem, but you do need an *understandable* goal or need that drives the story and creates conflict that we can see through drama or action. Three methods to make sure you have visible action in a character driven script:
1) Have a character who is the problem and is at war with the world around them - like in FIVE EASY PIECES where the protagonist's goal is to make peace with his father before he dies... except this is a guy who hates every single kind of authority there is - his father being the ultimate authority figure in his life - and is constantly battling everyone around him. He gets into fights with cops, he gets fired from his job, he tells a waitress at a restaurant with a serious "no substitution" policy what to do with a chicken, and all kinds of other *physical altercations*.
2) Create a very strong character who wants the world to bend to them (kind of 5 EASY PIECES times 100) like in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, where we have a guy who is out to conquer the world. Is his goal to own everything, and control everything? That's a strong goal, but you still have to create those scenes where he fights just about everybody and kills people he thinks are trying to double cross him - big dramatic visual conflict scenes.
3) You can put your character in a world of visible conflict like THE WRESTLER - a guy whose goal is just to put his life back together after screwing it up completely... but his life is the world of *wrestling* and he's too old to do that anymore.
INSIDE THE SQUARE RING
THE WRESTLER seems to be some sort of riff on ROCKY, but don't be fooled - there is no Champ who triggers the story by picking a fight with a burned out underdog fighter. This is a completely character driven, gritty, emotionally savage story that pulls no punches. There is no outside event that drives the story. The closest we get to outside events are the protagonist's age and his past - both come from character.
Mickey Rourke plays Randy The Ram, who was a famous wrestler twenty years ago. Now he lives in a trailer... and is behind on his rent, so the trailer is locked up and he's sleeping in his van until he can make back rent. He wrestles every weekend in some local exhibition at the Elks Club or something... and on weekdays he unloads trucks at a grocery store part time. Muscle work. He's always fighting for more hours, the verbally abusive grocery store manager is always giving him fewer hours probably just to piss Randy off.
Whatever money Randy does not spend on performance drugs and painkillers, he spends on strippers, mostly on one that he has a crush on: Cassidy, played by Oscar Winner Marisa Tomei. His fantasy is that they get married. She has a completely different fantasy, which doesn't include him. Randy also has an estranged daughter whom he has not seen in many years. He has a grade school photo of her with a half dozen phone numbers crossed off on the back. The guy is a mess... and this is his story, his life.
The film is that it takes you behind the scenes in wrestling, and you see the wrestlers talk out the match before they get in the ring. There is a funny scene where wrestlers argue about which one will do a specific fight move... between *all* of the wrestlers fighting in *all* of the matches that night. You also get to see how they hide razor blades in their arm wrappings so that they can cut themselves and bleed in the ring. Real blood. Their blood. And you see how physical and brutal this form of entertainment is - these guys take a real beating putting on a fake show. A funny trip to the Dollar Store to find props to hit each other with is fun.
But THE WRESTLER is all about the characters, and Rourke does an amazing job playing a guy who craves the fame that has gotten away from him. There is a tragic, cringe inducing scene where he convinces one of the trailer park kids to play the Atari Randy The Ram Wrestling game with him. A great situation designed to externalize Randy missing his lost fame. The kid doesn't want to play some silly old Atari game, when he could play something on his GameBoy. There's a great scene at an autograph event - a great situation - where Randy looks from one ex-wrestler to another, noting each of their permanent injuries - all of them are messed up... and that is *his* future if he continues. Another way to externalize his thoughts.
DOESN'T PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS
The two big relationships in the film are with the stripper and his daughter. Evan Rachel Wood plays the daughter, and there are some big meaty scenes between them, as Randy tries to make amends for a lifetime of neglecting her... but keeps screwing up. This relationship *begins* with conflict - she does not want to ever see him again, and he wants to see her and make amends. They have opposite goals - and that creates dramatic conflict. Look at your protagonist's goal with each of the important people in their life... and make sure it clashes with that person. If Randy wants to make up with his daughter and she wants to make up with him? No conflict, no story.
There's a great scene where Randy invites the stripper Cassidy (Maria Tomei) to help him shop at a thrift store for a gift for his daughter... and that gift has a swell payoff and twist in the story. The great thing about this scene is that it *shows us* how completely out of touch Randy is with his daughter, and builds dread about the gift he has purchased for her - it's the wrong thing. But it's a "two-fer" - because it *also* deals with his relationship with Cassidy. He obviously wants a romantic relationship with her, but she is afraid of being hurt again and keeps her distance.
Though Rourke is getting all of the Oscar buzz, Marisa Tomei gives another great performance as the stripper Cassidy whose real name is Pam and has a son and dreams and tragedies and struggles of her own. Tomei is a fearless actress. Here she is a mirror to Randy's tragedy - and has a bunch of great scenes where she gives a layered performance to match Rourke's. She is the stripper long past her pull date, who must act like she enjoys her job when she hates it... but maybe secretly loves part of it. Like Randy, she's in a business where she must take care of her body by any means necessary - and her body looks just as good as the girls half her age. But Cassidy's eyes are old. She's seen too much. There are several great scenes where Cassidy is smiling with every part of her face but her eyes... I'm not sure how Tomei did that.
MORE CLASHING GOALS
One of the interesting things about THE WRESTLER's story is that Cassidy desperately wants to escape the spotlight and just live a normal life... she wants to live as Pam, not Cassidy. But Randy desperately wants to live his entire life in the spotlight and never have to live a normal life... he wants to live as Randy The Ram and hates when people call him by his birth name Robin... the name on his W4 at the grocery store, so they put it on his name tag. These people are star crossed lovers - and are struggling with almost identical problems, just the mirror reflection of those problems. Opposite solutions... and that means clashing goals again.
Because a character driven script doesn't have an iceberg or an asteroid or an actual villain, it's important to make sure the characters create their own conflict, and that the conflict is visual and dramatic. Your protagonist *needs* to do something for an understandable emotional reason - like reconnect with his estranged daughter or recapture the fame of his youth. That need brings them into situations of conflict. Or maybe the character brings the conflict with them - they have strong, aggressive personalities and are at war with the world around them. You need strong dramatic *conflict* scenes that pull the character to the surface. The key to a character driven story is a driven character at odds with the world around them in some way. It's all about the character!
What is your character's physical goal? What prevents them from achieving that goal? What is the *struggle* - a physical struggle that we can see - in order to reach the goal.
In a true character driven story, either the protagonist is the problem - they have personal issues which create conflicts wherever they go; or the stories take place in a world of conflict - like THE WRESTLER - where part of the protagonists's life involves *regular physical action* which is tied into their emotional issues: once famous wrestler tries to get his life back on track.
THREE ACT CHARACTER
Just because your story is character driven doesn't mean it's some formless slug of a screenplay. You still need basic structure - the 2,400 year old version - which has Act 1 of your story introducing the conflict, Act 2 escalating the conflict, and Act 3 resolving the conflict. Whether your story is a character driven story about a Wrestler or a plot driven story about a big shark eating people, you still need to introduce the conflict, have the conflict get worse, then resolve it (one way or another).
In WRESTLER we have an aging man in a physical business, who has pretty much screwed up his whole life - he has an estranged daughter, he is alone in life, he is broke, he is no longer famous... and longs for that fame.
Act 2 kicks in when his age really catches up with him - he sustains an injury (I'm not going to spoil it) and realizes he is too old to do this... but what else can he do? Act 2 has him working injured, and trying to resolve all of the problems in his personal life - and none of this works out as planned. On being alone - he has a woman he likes, and finally asks her out... and the date doesn't go as planned. He keeps trying to have a relationship with her, and this plot thread has ups and downs throughout Act 2. His estranged daughter - he tries to make up with her, make peace with her... and that doesn't go as planned. Again, ups and downs in that plot thread create conflict threaded through Act 2. We also have his lost fame - and he accepts a rematch with his old opponent and must train for it... and that is a series of training scenes where he must deal with being too old to do many of the things he did 20 years ago. There is also a fame plot thread - a series of scenes threaded through act 2 that has to do with autograph shows, etc. and how his age is closing in on him. And last, we have a money thread of the story - he has constant conflicts with his boss at his day job, and has to get his finances in order if he's going to get his life in order, and the day job is a big part of that.
Eventually we get to Act 3, where he quits his day job and realizes the only way to resolve all of his problems is to do that big wrestling rematch event and become famous again - because that can resolve all of the other problems... and we get a big physical conflict set piece at the end. Again, no spoilers as to whether he reclaims his fame and we get that ROCKY ending with Adrian/Cassidy running through the crowd to hug him and profess her love at the end.
So look at your story - what is your conflict? Do you have regularly placed (pacing) scenes that have your protagonist struggling with the conflict? What is driving your protagonist? What is their goal? It may not be a goal, it may be a fear... but it's something, and you have to really know your character inside and out to write a character driven script... or any other kind of script. Often in a character driven story your protagonist doesn't get what they want, they get what they need. And their goal may not be to save the world, it may just be to reconcile with their daughter. The strength of the goal has to do with the character. How important something is *to the character*. You have to show us how important this goal is (but you can take much of the movie to do that) so that we can understand what drives this character.
I mean, what kind of a goal is a freakin' snow sled?
BRAND SPANKIN' NEW!
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