Monday, March 28, 2011

Mockler Tips: Make Life Harder for Your Protagonist

Make your story more interesting for your audience by making life harder for your protagonist.

First drafts of screenplays often have one thing in common: they make life too easy for the protagonist.

It makes sense. Writing a first draft is hard. Why not have the protagonist walk into the bar and get exactly what they expect? It’s easier for the writer because they don't have to worry about the protagonist falling flat on their face or bumping into an ex-boyfriend or forgetting their wallet.

But in the revision this should change. Having events occur too smoothly and with the character getting exactly what they expect can often be very dull for an audience.

In the 1952 Italian film Umberto D written by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio De Sica, not one moment of this classic neorealist film is easy for protagonist Umberto D, an elderly pensioner trying to secure his basic needs for survival. From selling a watch to getting on the streetcar to finding his lost dog, Umberto D’s every action is met with an obstruction. And his every expectation greeted with an outcome he does not anticipate but with which he must cope. For example, Umberto D collects as much money as he can to pay his back rent, but when he gives the money to his landlady, she will not accept partial payment; it’s all or nothing. This makes life more difficult for him and is an event he does not anticipate. In another example, Umberto D admits himself to the hospital leaving his beloved dog, Flike, with his trusted friend, the tenement housemaid, Maria. Upon his return, Umberto D is shocked to discover his dog is missing—the cruel landlady let him out. Again this makes life hard for the protagonist, and it’s an event he doesn’t expect.

While this film may be an exaggeration of this principle, it never hurts a story to rely less on coincidence and convenience and more on conflict and obstacles. Why? Because life is hard and audiences root for characters who they relate to, who are vulnerable, and who they understand. What audience wants to read a story about a beautiful couple, with well-behaved children, who live in a mansion, have well-paying successful jobs, who are fit, healthy, and happy, and who get everything they want out of life? Not many. If the beautiful girl gets the handsome man then she better pay for it by struggling long and hard, and in some cases, as in Romeo and Juliet, the protagonists must die for audiences to care. Romeo doesn’t expect that Juliet will wake up; he thinks she’s dead which is why he drinks the poison. 

Written by Kathryn Mockler