One of the things I do is read other people’s scripts and manuscripts to assess whether they’re suitable for production or publication. The biggest test every story has to pass is “Why Should We Care?” And it’s the test that writers forget more than any other.
Why should we care about the characters in a story?
Why should we care whether they get what they want or not?
You could have the most original high-concept plot in the world, but if nobody cares about the characters in it, you might as well be writing a financial report: it might be important, but only a very small number of people will want to read it or give a shit. Stories are about people, and if the people are not interesting or compelling, then there’s a problem. If a story is clichéd and has clichéd characters, it goes into the Reject pile, though I still have to write a couple of thousand words (longer than this column) explaining how and why. If the story is interesting but the characters are cardboard or boring, it might get a deeper look-in, but chances are it won’t be bought, because producers are after scripts by people who know how to write both plot and characters, being able to do only one or the other is not going to bag the writer a career. A dull story with well-written characters is not going anyway.
In Hollywood, with so much money at stake, they tend to make you care about the characters in a movie or show by going out of their way to make them “likable”. It’s the easy hedge – you care about the hero because you like him. He’s a nice guy despite his flaws. He’s just like you or I. You know he’s a nice guy deep down even if he might be a bit of an arsehole. Or you know the arsehole is going to rediscover his Inner Nice Guy by story’s end. Hollywood movies go to great pains to make their heroes fit their idea of a likeable or relatable hero.
But “likeable” is not the same as “interesting” or “compelling”. A character can be as horrible or dislikeable as you like as long as the character is compelling, as long as there’s something about them that makes you interested in seeing what they do next, how they react to a situation and whether they’re going to succeed in their goals. Macbeth is so power-hungry he evolves into a serial-killing megalomaniac and you want to see how he’s brought down. Richard the Third gleefully plots and murders his way to the throne before he gets his comeuppance. Hubris brings Macbeth and Richard III down and that’s the pay-off to their stories.
It’s a bit trickier to write a protagonist who’s neither nice guy nor total villain but something more complex or complicated. Whether people might care for them might be entirely subjective. Deeply flawed, complicated, even depraved characters are more the province of indie movies that try to get into Sundance. An otherwise despicable character might be clever and witty to be compelling. “What a clever bastard,” you might think. “Is he going to be clever enough to get out of this mess?”
The big problem is when writers take it for granted that the audience would want to read their stories and follow the characters for no reason just because they’re there. Remember the flood of hitman movies in the 1990s after Tarantino? Suddenly, hitmen were cool. They were adolescent power fantasies for unfettered freedom, it was cool to have the freedom to flout society’s ultimate rule, which is to murder someone. And for money, no less. There were all these hitmen movies where you were expected to follow the cool hitman around as he went about his business before he found something or someone to fight for. The scripts got more and more clichéd as they went along, and you don’t want to hear about the ones that didn’t get made. I was still in film school in the 90s, and I read a lot of those screenplays. Looking back, it seems weird that the hitman genre became the hot genre for aspiring screenwriters in that period, and the genre fell into the “Why Should We Care?” sharkpool. We should care about these guys because they’re hitmen? Huh?
I was reminded of the “Why Should We Care?” test recently by a movie and a comic. The movie was one I stumbled upon while channel-surfing. ANGEL OF DEATH is a cheaply-shot movie about a hitwoman who has to kill her employers after they try to kill her for screwing up a job. Its main draws seemed to be that it was written by Ed Brubaker and starred Zoe Bell, who’s most well-known for being Lucy Lawless’ stunt/action double on XENA and starring in Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. Beyond that, the movie failed the “Why Should We Care?” test in spades. The plot seemed to be cobbled together from every 90s hitman movie ever made, and the main character shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head at the start of the movie didn’t make her anymore interesting or compelling. Even getting a knife in her head and then suffering from guilt and hallucinations for the rest of the movie didn’t liven it up. The whole movie was originally serialized for the web and is practically a throwback to the 90s hitman trend. What I don’t understand is how the people who greenlit it thought this was the kind of thing people still want to see. I’ll assume Brubaker just gave the producers what they wanted, but still…
The comic was the first issue of RED HERRING, a political thriller written by David Tischman and drawn by Philip Bond. Entire comics drawn by Bond are such a rarity these days that whenever one pops up, it’s always worth a look-in. And my “Why Should We Care?” alarm began ringing almost immediately. The plot involves a girl interning for a US Senator who gets caught in a Hitchcockian spy thriller. The first issue is spent setting up the girl’s character before the thriller plot kicks in during the final few pages: she’s a spoiled, middle-class girl whose rent is paid for by her father, she lies to her mother in their regular phone calls, has secretly shagged her roommate’s boyfriend, and is shagging her Senator boss. I can appreciate Tischman trying to write a character that isn’t another run-of-the-mill comic book character, but he’s failed to write a character that’s even remotely interesting or compelling. She narrates the story, yet we never know why she does what she does, why she does things that she shouldn’t do. There’s not hint of her inner life or any suggestion that she’s going to become a resourceful or surprising heroine who discovers what she’s really made of later on. There is nothing about her that suggests she’s a person worth caring about. There’s also a strange out-of-fashion vibe about the character, considering Monica Lewinsky stopped being an amusing joke, let alone cutting-edge news, 10 years ago. I know comics have a tendency to be woefully out-of-step with the times, but this is bizarre. And there’s nothing to suggest the thriller plot is going to be anything we haven’t seen in hundreds of movies before. If it weren’t for the lovely art, I’m not sure why I would want to read the next issues.
I don’t like to slag off people’s hard work, but these two projects just show that even experienced writers can make the mistake of forgetting the “Why Should We Care?” test. It feels like contemporary pop culture isn’t even bothering to find interesting stories to tell, just regurgitating the same old clichés over and over again because it’s a lot easier than actually finding something deeper or insightful to say.
Further reminders that writers now have to work harder than ever to create stories worth caring about. And comics writers really need to work a lot harder than screenwriters, given how much smaller the readership is compared to movie and TV audiences.
Sighing at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Adisakdi Tantimedh