Category Archives: Character Development

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Jason Bourne: Script Learning Curve

Jason Bourne is a known entity – It is a highly successful franchise: The Bourne Identity, The The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Legacy, and now – Just plain Jason Bourne because that’s all we need. The name says it all.

The genre that audiences love – Action/Thriller fully delivers, with a shaky-cam that can sometimes drive an audience to dizziness. Every single scene starts late and arrives early. In other words: The party is already in full swing when the guest arrives; a door slams and the guest is in his getaway car. The camera cross-cuts to the various story lines with record-breaking speed and then, we get a rap-up or mop-up in the last sequence of the story.

The story is compelling: A loner with a mysterious past. He’s been dealing with amnesia, but through all the Bourne movies, he’s slowly gotten his memory back. The plot has revolved around the fact that this Hero is looking for his past so he can understand his present and then hopefully, move on to a future. This is the compelling notion about crafting such a Main Character: Most of the people in the audience can certainly identify with his quest for self-understanding, as the journey most of us take through life involves connecting these three core elements: Past, Present, Future.

The problems with this script were not enough to make the film a failure, but there were problems, and if you can identify what they were, it will help to make you a better writer.
First of all, Nicki, the potential love interest and ally is knocked off at the end of Act 1. At approximately the 31 minute mark, she dies from several bullet wounds. Because the writer chose to kill off the potential love interest and Bourne’s only ally at the end of Act 1, no time was invested in any type of relationship between the Hero and his love interest, who did have a vested affection for Bourne, as was established in prior films in this franchise. The audience doesn’t feel emotionally involved by Bourne’s loss in this film because there is simply no set up for it. If the writer was counting on every viewer having seen the prior films, that was an error. She could have been killed off on p. 75 which would set up the eventual show-down with the Main Opponent, the Tommy Lee Jones character.

Instead, the Vikander character appears as Bourne’s new ally. She is a fake ally, as will be revealed in the Climax. But again, this is a “dropped in” contrivance of the writer. The audience is sucked in to thinking she’s the new ally, and she is set-up nicely for this because the Opponent is aware that she is helping Bourne, but finds her conveniently useful to advance his own Plan – to take down Bourne. Suddenly, she turns and wants power and the whole thing about being Bourne’s ally hits the dust. He is on to her though, as he is a “superman warrior who misses nothing,” and we are given this little “twist” at the end of the Climax, into the New Equilibrium sequence of the story. All of this at the end was contrived and predictable and highly irritating because audiences are not as stupid as Hollywood thinks they are.

By the end of Act I, Bourne has figured out his identity and he has also gleaned remarkably new information about his father. This was powerful stuff and certainly could have sufficed to catapult him into Act 2 to avenge his father’s murder. Instead, as already noted, Nicki, the love interest is the “new information” that pushes him out of his Ordinary World of fighting in bars and just existing in hiding into the C.I.A. world of high gadgetry, action, more murder, car chases, more opponents – All the stuff that audiences love in this genre. The high-tech guru, with heady references to Snowden and identity theft, also on today’s audience’s minds, takes a bullet on p. 75 instead of Nicki, the love interest. Maybe the writer toyed with this idea. What was lacking here was what the high-tech guru had as a relationship to Bourne’s character development – I couldn’t find it. It made for a big disconnect. It was not a good feeling to see the guy felled by a bullet, but it was a plot contrivance and it was predictable. Yes, it was set-up when the high-tech guru had his meeting with the Opponent, the Tommy Lee Jones character. But again, unless the high-tech guru character either challenged, supported, or negated the Bourne character, he should have been rewritten in this script.

Then we had, per an interview with Matt Damon, approximately 170 cars demolished in this film. Kudos to Las Vegas for allowing all this craziness on the Strip. But 70 cars demolished would have been enough. The massive pile-ups were staged to the point of looking like an animation. And why not take the money from the savings of buying 100 cars and then smashing them up and give the money to some out of work Vegas people? All the casino employees who lost their jobs when the bubble burst in 2008 would have loved a lottery to win a car from Jason Bourne.

This brings me back to the compelling Weakness/Need of the Hero who is trying to connect his past with his present so he can move forward into his future. He’s been used and abused by a corrupt system within the C.I.A., a common mantra these days. The audience identifies with this Hero. I’m not discounting the acting of Matt Damon, a very lovable, believable “All American” kinda guy. And the genre of Action/Thriller is a crowd-pleaser. But certain elements in this action-packed thriller could have made the character even more compelling and elevated the story line to a much higher level. Fancy camera work, cross-cutting, and superb high-tech gadgetry aside, it’s the story that everyone remembers. It’s the inner struggle, that term called the “character arc,” that audiences remember. It was a bit thin in Jason Bourne.

How Do I Start to Write?

1) Decide on your genre.  Think about genres that really speak to you, that move you deeply.

Is this an historical epic? Are your characters real or fictional? Is this a drama? A political thriller?  An action/adventure? Is this a mix of romance and comedy? Drama and historical epic? Science fiction mixed with Drama and Mythology?

2) Where did your story originate?  Are you the sole author?  Is it a derivative work based on other material, such as a book, magazine article, short story?  Is the derivative work public record?  If not, you have to acquire rights of the living person to write the story.

Maybe this was an event that occurred that you now want to write about.  Maybe you “read about this person” and always wanted to write a story, incorporating this person’s story, but fictionalizing it.

Maybe you lived in the arena you want to write about—Journalism, tennis, ballet, medicine, education, the oil industry, the legal profession, politics, art, music.  This is good.  But if you did not live in the arena you want to write about, you need to start doing research about the arena.  As you get deeper and deeper into the research, you will be amazed how inspired you will become.  New ideas and perspectives will reveal themselves.  You will become knowledgeable and feel that you have the depth to write a story that is believable and “grabs” your audience!

3) Story values within your story idea – Come up with a main character who has those values.

What draws you to that story?  What does the story reveal about the human condition? Your main character has psychological needs and moral needs – What are they? What happened to him/her that caused this character to have these needs? What flaws does this character have as a result of his/her psychological/moral make-up? All of this moral structure value system for your story will give it spine and a theme, and the moral structure value system of your main character will play out in the climax. So it’s important to devote some time to this in the very beginning!

The “Running Start”

 

Working within the 3-Act Structure of a screenplay, the writer has to be aware of many structural plot points that work cohesively to craft a great story. The Main Character/Hero/Protagonist will start off in most genres with “A Running Start,” as opposed to a “Community Start” (characters dancing at a wedding, etc.), or a “Slow Start” (a narrator whom we are mystified as to his identity).

Therefore, with the “Running Start,” the Hero will usually be introduced in the first few pages of Act 1. But wait!! Exceptions:

An example would be the Crime Genre, in which the crime is enacted in the first few pages of Act 1. Also, in the Crime Genre, the crime could be the Inciting Incident. This is the incident that acts as a catalyst for the Hero to engage in the action of the story. The Inciting Incident in Crime Genre and other genres will usually occur on page 10, 11, or 12, or 10, 11, or 12 minutes into the story. To sum up, the Hero will start off with “A Running Start” oftentimes after the crime, and the crime will occur in the first few pages of the story or on p. 10, 11, or 12 of the story.

In “Lincoln Lawyer,” a Redemption Story, Micky Haller is introduced to the crime after he has come face to face with the Main Opponent of the story. At this point in time, there is no REVEAL to the Hero or to the audience that Micky Haller is looking into the eyes of a psychopath. The face to face moment occurs at the “Inciting Incident,” on page 12. And then the Hero will have a meeting with the Main Opponent and his mother and their family lawyer, and the crime the Main Opponent is accused of is related in Flashback. The Hero is off to a “Running Start” to find the murderer.

In “Witness,” the crime is committed as part of the “Inciting Incident moment,” on p. 13, and this crime is witnessed by a little Amish boy in the bathroom of a train station. The Hero, Detective John Book, is introduced after the crime has been committed, right after the Inciting Incident. John Book is now off to a “Running Start” that will take him into Amish country to hide the boy until Book can confront the murderer, a dirty cop.

However, in “The Fugitive,” the crime is in motion on the opening page of the story. The Hero is taken into custody because he is in his home, covered with blood, with scratches on his neck when the police arrive after his dying wife has called 9-1-1. The Hero, Dr. Richard Kimble, is in the interrogation room of the police department and the crime is slowly revealed with Cross-Cut Flashback technique. The Hero is then off to a “Running Start” from the moment he is sentenced in court to lethal injection for the murder of his wife, which he did not commit.

The “Running Start” is a preferred way to open a story because the Hero is going for his Goal/Desire from the getgo. This ramps up the Narrative Drive of the story and it’s what keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

What the Protagonist Thinks He Believes

Desire is the motive energy behind all action.

When doing a character bio the trickiest thing to do is to create an area of misunderstanding or misguided belief in your protagonist, (the one who changes the most) and in your antagonists (the characters who obstruct, impede, challenge, love, hate, and generally impact the protagonist.) It means you have to know the difference between what they actually need, and what they believe they need.

 

If a character is motivated to act because he is “barking up the wrong tree,” then this will cause him to act, but soon he will realize that the antagonist blocking him from getting what he wants is precisely why he must re-evaluate what it is he wants. If he can get closer to that core truth about what he really wants, then the action will be ramped up a notch. The desire will increase to obsessive desire. This is where audiences witness character change through story. The ramped up desire also increases narrative drive, which in turn increases conflict. This “barking up the wrong tree” is the basis of all desire in your characters, and desire is the motive energy behind all action.

 

The main character will also think: What will happen if he doesn’t get what he wants???

 

In books (and to a much greater extent in movies) the protagonist’s obsessive drive is wanting something more than we do. In our lives we make compromises. We usually follow the path of least resistance because we can’t endure the conflict. We generally want easy lives. In stories, characters want stuff so badly that they actually go about getting it, doing whatever it takes to get it, in ways we probably wouldn’t.

 

If a protagonist doesn’t want something badly enough, he or she won’t do anything about trying to get it, and then there won’t be any story!!

 

 

 

The Character Bio Can Be Tricky©

When doing a character bio the trickiest thing to do is to create an area of misunderstanding or misguided belief in your protagonist, (the one who changes the most) and in your antagonists (the characters who obstruct, impede, challenge, love, hate, annoy and generally impact the protagonist.) It means you have to know the difference between what they actually need, and what they believe they need. They need to believe that if only they had this, or were that, or could get the other, or weren’t this that or the other, then their worlds would be hunky dory and they wouldn’t have any problems. This barking up the wrong tree is the basis of all desire in your characters, and desire is the motive energy behind all action.

This is where the next question comes in:

What does the protagonist think will happen if he/she doesn’t get what they want?

In books (and to a much greater extent in movies) your protagonist needs to want something really badly. They want it more than we do. In our lives we make compromises. We usually follow the path of least resistance because we can’t endure the conflict. We generally want easy lives.  In stories, characters want stuff so badly that they actually go about getting it, doing whatever it takes to get it, in ways we probably wouldn’t. If a protagonist doesn’t want something badly enough, he or she won’t do anything about trying to get it, and then there won’t be any story.

A “play” with the words “want” and “need” and “think you need”:

But when your character reaches the climax of the story, will he actually get what he thought he needed?  Maybe so.  But maybe not.  Here’s where the epiphany comes in.  It’s the realization that at the final moment the character has been fighting for, working toward, racing forward, jumping over highways and byways to get to…Maybe it was what he wanted, but maybe there’s something that he needed but he didn’t realize that he needed it, but now that he has achieved the end goal, he just may get what he needs, as opposed to what he thought he needed!!

So when you are creating your character, he/she must have a history that is not perfect by any means.  There are triumphs and there are flaws; highs and lows; good days and bad.  You need to describe these in as much detail as you can.  Make pages of this information.  Have fun.  What did your character have for breakfast when he/she was little? Where did he/she live? Describe the house/apartment/street.  Maybe your character lived in a shelter.  Describe.  Did your character go to school? If not, what did he/she do during childhood?  Maybe like Charles Dickens’ Oliver, he stole for a living and lived under the thumb of a ruthless Fagan character.  Maybe your character was an orphan.  Maybe from a family of ten.  Were they religious?  Did they go to a house of worship with their family?  Or did the parents send the kids and stay home?  Or did the parents go and leave the kids home? Was your character rich, poor, or somewhere in-between?

  • Describe the neighborhood, town, country where your character grew up.

  • Describe physical and emotional characteristics, including age.

** Note:  All characters in your story should have a bio.  The main character (protagonist) and the antagonist and the point of view character will get the widest amount of attention.  Round them out and make them as real as possible.  Try to employ empathy when creating them.  Get into their skin!!  If they did something that was unusual that was not something you would have done, it is important to go with this.  This character is not you.  This character has a life of his/her own.

** Come up with some very high and some very low points of each character’s “back story.” Sometimes, people say that “a certain high point” or “low point” defined them for the rest of their life.  Whether or not this ends up being true, the character may think or believe this!

Character Development – The End Goal vs. The Desire for the End Goal©

After you have decided on the genre of your story, or concurrent with deciding on the genre, you must decide on who your protagonist/hero will be.  Whether it’s a male or female protagonist, you need to decide on what your character’s goal/outer motivation in the story is.  Without the goal, the audience is left “hanging,” confused, irritated, and wondering why they paid their $15 to see this movie in the first place.  And remember, the protagonist’s goal is not your goal.  You need to step back and let your character do the talking and the walking.

You must decide what you want to do with this character you want to create—Someone who is waiting to jump off the page into a reader’s consciousness or jump onto the screen so the audience can view his/her story.  It’s time to give the protagonist a goal and an outer motivation.  And he/she must want this goal VERY BADLY.  Maybe you don’t want this goal because you’d rather sit home and avoid confrontation, BUT THE PROTAGONIST WANTS THIS GOAL AND JUST MIGHT BE READY TO DIE FOR IT.

Goal and Outer Motivation

When the protagonist (hero) is motivated to reach his/her “end goal,” this is the physical or tangible goal: To find the killer; to find a way out of prison; to survive a hurricane at sea; to survive a sinking ship and save as many people as possible; to find one’s identity that has been lost due to amnesia; to save as many people as possible from tyranny or genocide; to find the way home; to get the right to see one’s children when the wife has custody; to give a speech that will bolster a nation on the brink of war and destruction.

Desire to Reach the Goal

It is the protagonist’s desire to reach the goal that will drive the story.

The goal of the protagonist defines the story and carries us all the way to the end.  The desire to reach that goal will drive the story.  The outer motivation is the “finish line.” Ie. The hero wins a medal.  This is visible, tangible.  It would not be: “To achieve success.”  In The Fugitive, the goal for Dr. Kimble is to find the one-armed man.  In Titanic, the goal for Jack is Rose’s safety, for which he is willing to die.  In The Bourne Identity, the amnesic hero Jason wants to find his identity.  In Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler wants to save Jews from the Nazis by keeping his company going under false and dangerous pretenses.  In Gravity, Sandra Bullock wants to survive a mission gone awry and get back to earth without getting killed.  In Mrs. Doubtfire, the hero wants to get the right to see his kids.  In The Imitation Game, the hero wants to break Enigma, the Nazi Code. In Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins wants to escape from prison and avenge the crimes and punishment of the evil warden.  In The Firm, Tom Cruise wants to save his life and the life of his wife and disentangle himself from the mafia firm where nobody ever quits. In The King’s Speech, George has to give a speech and overcome his life-long stuttering, and lead his country into WWII, after his brother abdicates the throne.

 

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