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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A 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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