Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: What Are Your Characters Really After?Everything has a price. What is it that the characters in your story desire more than anything...and what are they willing to sacrifice in order to get it?
What was it that made the evil Queen in SNOW WHITE disguise herself in order deliver a poisoned apple?
What was the inciting incident which thrust BRAVEHEART'S William Wallace into the role of a Scottish rebel?
What was Indy's father seeking in the third INDIANA JONES movie?
What prompted BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID to go to Bolivia?
Why did Eliza Doolittle agree to participate in the professor's plan to turn her into MY FAIR LADY?
Why did Doc Brown modify the Delorean for time travel in BACK TO THE FUTURE?
What did GONE WITH THE WIND'S Scarlett O'Hara really want?
What is the result of a FATAL ATTRACTION?
Why did guests sign up for a weekend at FANTASY ISLAND?
What was THE GLADIATOR thinking about when he was in the Coliseum?
No matter how expansive the storyline or exotic the setting, the seeds of conflict are always rooted in three distinct human needs--the quest for reward, the passion for revenge, and the dream of escape. Sometimes, a story will contain elements of all three, linked by the common denominator that the primary focus is on getting the protagonist from where he or she is (or was) to where he or she ultimately wants to be at the end.
"Reward" can take several forms. There is the obvious, materialistic goal of tangible wealth: money, jewelry, land, a hidden treasure, a scientific discovery. There is also the reward of accomplishment: recognition/acceptance by one's peers, a coveted title or job, winning an important competition, reconciling with a lost friend or relation. And, of course, there is the immeasurable prize of every great romance: finding someone to love and to be loved in return.
"Revenge" is predicated on events in the past: a death, a deception, a disappointment, a dalliance. Whatever the triggering event, it is what sets the lead character on an obsessive course to see justice done, the guilty parties punished, and the soul restored to peace. Jealousy is also a common theme behind tales of revenge, wherein no expense is spared to make another character's life miserable and, accordingly, cause that person to forfeit what the opposition wants to have.
"Escape" falls into one of three categories. The first is based on the lead character's personal assessment that his or her immediate environment truly sucks and that there has to be something better "out there" if they can just muster the courage and wits to go find it; this is a voluntary and self-directed exit. The second form relates to any form of physical enslavement, confinement, mental cruelty or oppression; someone else is holding all the cards on a character's fate and preventing them-by whatever means possible-from running away to more favorable circumstances. The third variation on an escape-based theme is the "flight of fancy." The characters in this type of story yearn to either trade places with someone else or participate in an adventure, which will free them from the day-to-day monotony of their lives. More often than not, the resolution is their discovery that whatever they thought they wanted to escape from really wasn't that bad after all and they can't wait to return to it.
THE CHARACTER ARC
When you were five years old, what was the most important thing you wanted out of life? Was it a toy? A cookie? A nap with your favorite stuffed animal? Okay, let's move the clock forward five years. What was important to you at age ten? A new bike? Getting together after school with friends? A science class that really excited you?
Where are you now? Chances are that your life these days doesn't revolve around getting a cookie. Likewise, you may not even remember your science teacher's name or exactly why the class was so much fun. Why? Because you're older and you have moved on to something else.
I like to use this analogy in explaining what is called The Character Arc--the emotional currency of the character between the time you type FADE IN until you close with FADE TO BLACK. Although your hero or heroine may not physically age during the course of the story, the events which occur during that two-hour block of cinema will impact your character's ultimate "worth" as a human being. Let's use MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING as an example.
At the start of the film, the Julia Roberts character is recalling the pact she made with her best friend that the two of them would marry each other if no one else had grabbed them up in the meantime. When she learns that he is going to marry someone else, she embarks on the single-minded purpose of making his fiancee look bad so that he will call off the wedding and run away with her instead. When each of her machinations fail, she comes to realize that (1) maybe this really is true love and (2) she needs to put the needs of her best friend's heart ahead of her own.
Bottom line: She is not the same person by the final scene that she was at the beginning. She has learned from her mistakes and, with this new awareness, will achieve a contentment with herself and her bachelorette status that was not present when we were first introduced to her character.
Are your own characters true to their objectives? Whether your medium is a book, a play, or a film, the following checklist will help you stay on track in moving your players from start to finish.
1. Describe what your protagonist is like as a person when we first meet him or her. What does he or she want the very most when the story begins? Is it a goal primarily driven by reward, revenge, escape or a combination?
2. Will your character stay true to this objective all the way through the story? Why or why not?
3. Will he or she achieve the desired outcome? Will it be less? Will it be more?
4. How will the characters who are closest to the protagonist be affected by his or her success or failure at the story's end?
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Excerpted from Christina's latest book, ScreenTEENwriters," slated for Spring 2002 release by Meriwether Publishing, Colorado.