Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wesley Rowe: Proactive Protagonists

Of all the notes a screenwriter can receive from a reader, one deserves a special, more fiery and rusty-nail-pierced coffin in hell: "The protagonist needs to be more proactive." I have seen it applied to nearly every genre, and it is almost never the story's actual problem. I think it's worth discussing here, though, because the issue of proactiveness reveals so much about who we are and what draws us to be writers and readers in the first place.

It is one of the most jarring of all notes, in large part because it sounds like such an all-encompassing, page-one rewrite sort of criticism. It is also one of the most frustrating because, while the reader may have found a flaw that needs to be addressed, he probably doesn't have even the foggiest notion of what the real problem is. It immediately puts you on the defensive and tempts you to debate story principles instead of critiquing your story.

A quick dissection of Back to the Future, for example, might help your case: It features a protagonist who sighs a lot at how lame his family is, listens to endless exposition by super-chatty dog lover Doc Brown, flees from terrorists in the only vehicle available, and finds himself the victim of a vicious case of oedipal trouble. Actually making this argument to defend yourself would be a mistake, though, because it will prevent your reader from teasing out the underlying problem.

Instead, probe your reader about the major beats of the story and whether each one "worked" for him or her. This simple, vague question focuses the reader not only on her response to particular story beats, but on her expectations for those beats. When you find the emotional spine of your story and get the pieces of the story integrated with its genre, the passive character complaint will hopefully drop away.

One of my favorite horror characters is the teenage boy in The Hills Have Eyes (both Wes Craven's original and the remake). He is the only character with direct evidence that something dangerous lurks, yet he fails to tell anyone about the slaughtered dog. Whether his motive is fear or denial is never explained, yet the behavior is frustratingly human. Similarly, Marty McFly's perspective of teenage repression, and his exasperated inability to even find a ride to the lake for a night of romance, is identifiable to anyone who ever felt oppressed by the limitations of youth. His eventual triumph -- fixing his family -- is really the fulfillment of a collective wish that we could control the things beyond our control.

We live from one decision to the next, and so generally do our heroes. What makes drama or comedy captivating is the uniquely realized relationship between the circumstances and the character. Monster protagonist Aileen Wuornos' turn toward serial killing starts with a violent but nonetheless passive case of self-defense. Another protagonist, such as in Thelma & Louise, might have stopped after the first murder.

Readers, along with the rest of us, are cut from the same cloth as the prototypical hero of the Hero's Journey story archetype. Even when "called to action" on page 12, we keep looking for an easier path until page 25 or 30. Even then, we have to be chased into action by an old Volkswagen van bristling with terrorists. We only start to take the reins when the stakes have raised to a point that we will be destroyed if we don't forge ahead. If only we could find a way every day be the daring Hero of the third act Confrontation! But I usually feel like I'm muddling through an endless series of second-act complications.

Wesley Rowe, a freelance writer and independent producer, draws upon work experience ranging from, more recently, creative executive positions at two studio-based production companies, to, in his youth, designing mechanical parts for an NASA satellite that tested Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. He lives in L.A.

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