MEET THE READER: Ten Characters I Can Do Without… Revisited

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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charactersA few weeks back, I wrote a column called Ten Characters I Can Do Without – a list of clichéd characters that pop up in script after script that I would be very happy to never encounter again. Much to my surprise, this column generated an exceptionally strong response from readers, receiving 36 posted comments—the most any piece of mine has received so far. Most of these comments were quite ardent and thoughtful, so I thought it would be a good idea to address them in this follow-up.

The comments basically fell into one of five categories:

1. Quite a few of the readers agreed with my feelings about these particular characters. These folks are obviously very smart and have very good taste. Reader George Masters thought my comments were so good that I should be given my own television show to make them on. George obviously has excellent taste.

2. A number of readers wanted other characters added to the list:

  • Kathy Messick nominated “the dumb loser who messes up and still get[s] the girl even though he is an over-grad slacker with nothing to offer… I know it may put Sandler, Rogen, Wilson and their other cronies out of work, but won’t we be a better audience for it?”
  • Dennis wanted to add “the fat, obnoxious, male best friend (a “wingman” type) who says shocking, sexual things and behaves badly in front of women for laughs (?) and to make the better looking male protagonist look even better. I can take it in beer commercials, but in features? Enough already.”
  • Breck Murray thought we should add “the Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and Frank Burke recommended the “Twisted Serial Killer.”
  • Kevin T. Stein suggested “the Wrong Man for the Woman Who Acts Like a Good Man When She’s Around, Who at the Last Moment and For No Reason Shows He’s Really a Bad Man” and Jay recommended “Cops That Kill—in real life cops can’t kill people everyday then go back to work like nothing happened. Movies like Die Hard, Bad Boys… had cops who were basically serial killers.”
  • Lynelle White’s personal bête noire is “the woman – it’s always a woman – who [is] married to or otherwise involved with the guy whose job it is to save the world or save the tortured schoolchild or catch the worst villain in the history of humanity BUT she’s terribly, terribly upset with him cause he’s going to miss their kid’s school play and/or her anniversary! Kill her. Just kill her.”
  • Robb had three he wanted to add:
    • “The Directionless 20-Something Yearning To Make An Emotional Connection In The Big City But Who Never Actually DOES Anything. (These tend to show up in many, many navel-gazing indie ensemble scripts. It’s really hard to build any story momentum around vague introspection.)”
    • “The Brilliant but Undiscovered Long-Suffering Writer/Painter/Musician Who Is Obviously A Stand-In For The Screenwriter.”
    • Any Character Whose Only Objective Is To “Come To Terms” With Something. (I spent a decade reading scripts and my absolute number one complaint was protagonists without actable objectives. It stops any script dead in its tracks. Your protagonist absolutely SHOULD have an emotional journey. BUT… they must [also] be trying to accomplish something concrete.)

3. Several responders pointed out that, while I might be sick of seeing these same characters turn up in script after script, many of them were featured in some of the biggest movies of the past few years and that, therefore, I was guilty of giving bad advice, because I was advising spec script writers not to write about the characters that Hollywood obviously wants. To that I have three responses:

  • I don’t disagree that a lot of hit movies feature these characters.
  • I don’t think this makes them any less tired.
  • I would also point out that Hollywood is buying fewer spec scripts than ever, which means that the point of writing a spec these days is not (unfortunately) to sell it as a potential film, but to serve as a writing sample that will hopefully get you hired to work on the “based on pre-sold properties” movies that are the studios’ primary focus these days. And, while these movies may be mostly formulaic tripe, every manager, agent, development executive, and producer in town will tell you that they are looking for writers with “unique” voices to work on these things. It is my humble opinion that you will never develop that unique voice if all you’re doing is recycling the same old same old.

4. Reader Chris McQuade pointed out that many people like writing about these characters and asked that I not “discourage someone from creating a character if they have a passion for invigorating new life into one of these archetypes.” To Chris and all those other writers, I say “go for it,” if that’s your passion. But if you do, I ask that you take Chris’ advice and do something fresh and original with these characters. My weariness is not with heroic hit men, wise ethnic shamans, chosen ones, and all of the other clichés mentioned in the column per se, but by the rote, unimaginative, and by-the-numbers way in which they are used in script after script after script. If you are going to take on one of these old warhorses, then don’t simply don’t’ simply regurgitate what you’ve already seen, but instead introduce some unique twist or variation that will bring these people to life in a way that we’ve never seen before.

5. Reader Marvin Wilson gave me a task – accepting that my list highlighted the characters that I didn’t want to see any more, he asked me to provide a list of the characters that I did want to see. It’s a reasonable request. It’s also one that’s impossible for me to fulfill, because I don’t have any such list. I don’t want to read scripts about specific types of characters, I want to read scripts about characters that are fascinating and compelling and I won’t know who they will be until I come across them. What I do know is that they will be written by someone who has a passion for and insight into that character and the talent to communicate that passion and insight to the reader (and eventually the viewer).

A few months back I saw a film on TCM called The Sundowners, which was about itinerant sheepherders in the Australian outback in the 1920s. Now, if you had asked me prior to seeing the film if I had any interest in itinerant Australian sheepherders, I would have said absolutely not. But the people that made The Sundowners (novelist Jon Cleary, screenwriter Isobel Lennart, and director Fred Zinneman) sure did and that passion involved and captivated me for a very entertaining two hours and thirteen minutes.

So, don’t write about characters that you think I or anyone else might want to see, write about the people (and situations and premises) that you’re interested in. If it’s one of the characters on my list, then so be it. If you’re passionate and do a good job of making it fresh and original, then everything old will seem new again.

Thanks for reading. Keep those comments coming!

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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21 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: Ten Characters I Can Do Without… Revisited

  1. Meredith

    Your articles have inspired me, giving me hope that my story will be the script you will want to read and eventually see in motion. The character(s) I’ve written do not fit in with the overseen characters list, (Hallelujah!)and your advice helps me focus on the direction and purpose. Thank you for sharing your view on worn out characters and instilling much needed support.

  2. Tim W

    Robert Holbrook left a very silly comment about inception. Inception was science fiction! jobs that don’t exist are allowed to exist in the realm of science fiction – the purpose of which is hopefully to explore something interesting about humanity and create something original, inception did that.

  3. Rhonda Misson

    Thank you Ray for confirming my feelings about current movies. Glad you liked the Sundowners. Although an Australian film, I think it starred Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Actors should also take note of what you have written. Your career is waning when you are considering staring in another remake of Sunset Boulevard”

  4. Robert Holbrook

    “INCEPTION”
    An example of “People with jobs that don’t exist” — Even though the film made zillions of $ and was nominated for Oscars, including best picture, I didn’t care for the characters and ceased to care about all the malarky that was going on onscreen. But obviously people like you and me are the exception. Critics and audiences ate it up.

  5. How-to Reader

    Ray – Couldn’t agree more about all these hackneyed clichés, and what’s worse, is seeing so many of them actually get produced. Even the 16 year olds I know are sick of them, though they’ve been putting up with them not nearly as long as I have!

    But don’t you think the avalanche of cookie-cutter ‘how-to be a scriptwriter’ books, gurus, coaches and conferences are largely responsible for all this tripe? Not to mention the ‘dynamic young executives’ who swear by them just as fiercely? I think there’s even a program you can buy that practically writes one for you. Just fill in the blanks. Try to write a script these days that veers one iota from their ‘recipes’ and they’re all over you, wagging their fingers!
    (Yeah, I know, we’re not allowed to say so…!)

  6. Myladyindc

    If Hollywood would only take off the blinders and open the door to creative writers with new ideas and vision, maybe they won’t produce movies with cliche characters. I’m sick of watching remake after remake movies. There is no originality left in Hollywood anymore and it shows in the theaters.

  7. Captain

    It depends on your perspective. If you are on the inside looking out,you think the overuse of character types is boring. If you are on the outside looking in, don’t kid yourself, You are not going to be an artist with something personal to say and get paid. Screenwriting is a craft like building a house and there are certain Genres with particular forms that people like. Now I am definately a rookie who hasn’t sold anything but I know these things.Oh yes, I will slip my art in around the edges and if you read my whole script you will see it.
    Captain

  8. Martyn

    Damn! I’m writing a screenplay that has ALL these characters in! It was going to be a blockbuster!! Hey maybe it still could be… I could sell it to Hollywood!!! 🙂

  9. Marushka

    Most male characters in today’s films. Particularly loathe the fat/stupid/ugly friend/brother in particular. Don’t waste screen time on these assholes.

  10. Anders Frithiof August

    Laughing out loud as well!

    But being a screenwriter in denmark, I can tell you that this is not exclusive to Hollywood! The “if it looks and sounds like a film you’ve seen before, it must be good, right?”-mentality is everywhere! On a sidenote, I’m envious that you get to talk about character so much. Watching and reading arty european films all the time, where clichées more than anywhere rule, I consider myself lucky if there is one character in the film that you can talk about.

  11. Mario Di Pesa

    Hey! So we know about a lot of characters you hate…, how about a few you liked? Just, characters you saw in recent films that you thought were really interesting and fresh!

    NOT so I can instantly write a script about them…, just curious! 🙂

    thanks
    m.

  12. Francis Hamit

    I can do without ever seeing another “psycho veteran” villain. This hurtful meme has now evolved to include veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Vietnam. And giving them fresh life does further divide the military from the rest of our society.

  13. K. Rowe

    I’d just like to see some NEW, ORIGINAL movies coming out of Hollywood. Remakes are SO passe! New blood, new story lines, that’s what’s needed. Hollywood needs to take chances on projects that are different and interesting. Playing it safe by making remake after remake will eventually lose the masses.

    They shouldn’t be afraid to embrace new characters either.

  14. David J. Saia

    If you really wanted to do something proactive, instead of comments like I’ve been reading, which are reactive, you would suggest making a movie featuring a cast of these characters exclusively. We are what we portray. It is the Hollywood lack of imagination that makes these characters typical and overused.

  15. writersaregods

    The two character cliches I personally HATE the most are the Wrongfully Accused Hero and the Badass with Morals. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason these two archetypes seem to plague 90% of the action/thriller genre.

  16. JEP

    I am Laughing out Really Loud because I see one particular actor in about a half-dozen of these cliches. Two of them made him many, many American dollars. He was either the very first one to bring the character to the screen–I don’t think so–or else . . . Well, I’ll just leave out the or else.

  17. Nina

    “The Brilliant but Undiscovered Long-Suffering Writer/Painter/Musician Who Is Obviously A Stand-In For The Screenwriter.”

    THAAAAANK YOU! I hate that character.

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