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
Some time back, I wrote a column called “Fourteen Scripts I Never Need to Read Again” – a list of story concepts that had been done so many times that for me they had become burned-out clichés with nothing left to offer. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately and have noticed a preponderance of certain characters that I have come to feel the same way about. So here is a list of screen staples that I would be very happy to never cross paths with again:
Heroic Hit Men
Hit men have been the protagonists in so many films over the past decade that one script I read recently described a character as dressing “in typical hit man costume.” That’s right, hired killers are now so ubiquitous in our pop culture that there’s a standard outfit for them, as if they were Batman or Superman (the script didn’t specify what the outfit was – I guess because we’re already supposed to know – but I assume it’s the standard black suit with sunglasses). Apart from extreme overuse and the ridiculous, super-heroic characterizations ascribed to them in current films and screenplays (paid assassins on screen tend to be cool, sleek, Bondian characters: smart; sophisticated and cultured; highly-paid; highly-trained, with the combined skill set of a Navy SEAL and a ninja; and living by a strict, Samurai-like code of honor, whereas real-life mechanics are usually low-life mobsters or seedy, fringe-dwelling sociopaths that would kill their own mothers for a few thousand bucks except that they usually bungle the job), my main problem with hit men (or women) protagonists is that I don’t care a whit about them. I’m not one that believes that a protagonist always has to be “likeable,” but I do need to have some sort of essentially sympathy for him (or her), his predicament, and/or his goals in order to invest myself in his adventures for two-plus hours and I find it impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for someone that has chosen to kill people for money.
Many writers try to get around this problem by making their protagonists’ targets even worse than they are (“I only kill child molesters and litterbugs”) or by giving their killer elite crises of conscience that are supposed to make us realize that they are really decent people underneath (“Wow, seeing that little girl cry after I blew away her parents makes me realize how despicable my profession is. As soon as I finish this one last job, I’m going to give it all up and move to the south of France to grow grapes”). The problem is that these things are all artificial dodges (I mean, I imagine if a hit man actually had a conscience to prick, he probably wouldn’t have become a hit man in the first place) and when you strip them away, you’re still left with having to root for a character that has made a choice at some point in his life to whack people for scratch. This I cannot do, so while I may enjoy the thrill-ride aspects of a hit man movie, I can never get invested in them, and since an endless parade of movies that I can’t get invested in doesn’t much interest me, I’m ready to put a contract out on this tired, tired character.
The Elite Government Operative
The heroic hit man’s semi-legal cousin, these sleek, cool spies, agents, soldiers, and special force members – all of whom seem to work for secret government agencies that no one knows exists that are so secret that even all the other secret government agencies that no one knows exists don’t know they exist – are all highly-intelligent and highly-trained (in everything – the art of war, martial arts, weaponry, computers, stunt driving, piloting aircraft and marine vehicles, and selecting the right wine with dinner). They live well (surrounded by the latest in hi-tech everything) but alone (since they could die at any moment, they make it a point to never get emotionally involved with anyone, which doesn’t stop them from having lots and lots of sex) and there’s nothing they can’t do, from smuggling secret documents across heavily guarded borders to building explosives out of chewing gum wrappers and crazy straws to preparing an exquisite gourmet dinner. There’s no place in the world they haven’t been and can’t make themselves at home and many of them have a touch of the mystic about them (having taken time out from killing people and blowing things up to study the Eastern philosophies). Their handlers have a hard time controlling them, they tend to go rogue on a regular basis, and spend most of their time saving the world from domination by all sorts of madmen and psychopaths. The problem that I have with these characters is that even though they are all obviously fantasy figures operating in fantasy worlds, they are usually no fun at all. For some reason, the people that write most of the scripts featuring these characters do so with an absolutely straight face – presenting their heroes in a deadly serious manner with no sense of humor and no acknowledgement that they and their worlds are absolutely absurd. I suspect that they may do this to separate their protagonists and their adventures from the lighter and more fantastic approach that has characterized the obvious granddaddy of all of these heroes, James Bond (although even Bond’s creators have been draining him of much of his fun in his more recent outings), but it’s a real mistake. I’m tired of these characters because having to take something seriously that is inherently ridiculous is wearing and the constant coldness and unending grimness of these characters is ultimately pretty boring. A little humor and humanity would go a long way in allowing us to invest ourselves in these automatons and their fairy-tale escapades, but without them, I’m ready to permanently revoke their licenses to kill.
Jaded 21-Year Olds
I was twenty-one once. I thought I had seen it all and done it all. Nothing impressed me and I was bored by everything. I thought all adults were corrupt, clueless phonies and that only the young knew what was real and honest and true. I thought I had figured out all of the answers to life’s riddles and that everyone else in the world was too stupid to figure them out. I was hip and wry and cynical and ironic and a complete and total obnoxious bore. And so are all these characters.
The Chosen One
The concept of a single person designated by prophecy since before conception and imbued with the knowledge and/or power to destroy all bad in the universe and elevate all good is the oldest and most tired cliché in fantasy fiction and has given rise to a long string of equally tiresome young, inexperienced (and often quite whiney) youth that are completely ill-equipped to answer whatever hero’s call that has been shouted out to them by the universe, but by ultimately believing in themselves and whatever kooky pseudo-mystical philosophy that they have been asked to accept, are able to become the triumphant heroes they never thought they could be. The sheer predictability of this arc is wearying enough, but it also seems to have convinced writers that all that is required to create one of these characters is to toss in a single negative character trait – lack of confidence, lack of courage, lack of vision – that can be corrected by “believing” and their job is done. As a result, most of these would-be Luke Skywalkers are shallow, one-dimensional, and wholly uninteresting. The force is definitely not with them.
The Wise Ethnic Shaman
Don’t the oppressed minorities of the world have better things to do than be responsible for the moral and philosophical development of a bunch of clueless white people?
People with Jobs That Don’t Exist
A lot of very good drama can be created by giving a character a significant professional dilemma. Should a lawyer defend someone they know is guilty? Should a doctor employ a risky procedure on a dying patient if it might save the patient’s life? However, recent films like Hitch and Failure to Launch feature characters that work in jobs that don’t exist and never will exist in the real world (a “date doctor” that tutors nerds in how to be hipper and more romantic in order to date hot chicks; a woman that makes a living by dating men in order to get them to move out of their parents’ homes) and then put them in situations in which they are confronted with fake problems arising from their fake jobs (should the date doctor accept clients that are only out to score; should the launch woman come clean when she falls in love with her mark?). Perhaps inspired by the success of these sorts of the film, the character with the fake job has become something of a spec script staple. For me, the problem with these characters is that there is absolutely no reality for the audience to grab on to. There can be enormous fun in putting a real character in an unreal situation or an unreal character in a real situation, but putting an unreal character in an unreal situation reminds me of that famous Gertrude Stein quote: “There’s no there there.” I can’t care, so I don’t care.
Hip Old People
For me, this one is also a matter of reality – I think the best comedy plays off something that is recognizable and real. Old people are funny in all sorts of ways, but acting like present-day teenagers isn’t one of them – I mean, really, how many rapping 75-year-olds or skateboarding 90-year-olds or centenarians that swear a lot and call people “dawg” are there out there, anyway? At best, it’s a one-joke idea and certainly not something that can or should be extended throughout a feature length script. Which doesn’t stop people from trying. A lot.
White Kids That Act Like Minorities
If hip old people are funny once, these ethnic wannabes are funny never. Ever. At best they’re simply stupid and at worst horribly offensive, and yet that doesn’t stop many spec script writers out there from continuing to include such characters in their screenplays at much higher rates than you might ever expect.
The Romantic Young Woman That Becomes Involved With A Long String of Mr. Wrongs Before Finally Realizing that Her Male Best Friend Is the Mr. Right She’s Been Looking For All Along
My problem with this character is that I know I am supposed to root for her, but the fact that the obvious has been staring her in the face for years and she has never been able to see it makes me think she is an idiot… and it’s hard to root for an idiot. And this leads me to the next movie character that I’m totally done with:
That Male Best Friend That’s Been Waiting For Years For The Romantic Young Woman to Realize That He Is The Mr. Right She Has Been Looking For All Along
Dude, are you really going to wait around for the better part of a decade while the girl of your dreams jumps into bed with jerk after jerk while she never gives you a second look and then let her cry to you every time one of these toxic romances goes south? And after she’s stepped on your heart a gazillion times, are you really going to finally get together with her no questions asked? Man up already, you big wuss.
*Editor’s Note: A few weeks later, Ray Morton wrote a follow-up piece – Meet the Reader: 10 Characters I Can Do Without… Revisited.
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