Making pointless characters matter and making pointless competition meaningful. Here’s some different things I’ve been thinking a lot about this past month. Maybe there’s something here to interest you too?
HOW TO FIX YOUR POINTLESS CHARACTERS
Last month, I had the misfortune of being part of a very uncomfortable writers’ room, developing up a new show. I won’t go into details other than to say that the creative lead was not interested in the opinion of the one woman in the room (me, for those of you playing along), the producers didn’t seem to notice despite my repeated attempts to be heard, and yes, well, it happens.
I’m not going to go into the details or try and analyse the many, many ways in which this room was problematic and personally challenging, but I do want to share a little writing realisation I had during the process that may be of use to you.
Have you ever come across a character that I like to refer to as ‘a pointless woman‘? I say woman because they’re usually female characters and they seem to exist only to look good and give the usually male protagonist something to lust after. They don’t really have a personality, or a goal, or layers, they’re just – blah. And writers keep trying to palm them off as core cast.
You often see them when people try and add a female character at the last minute when they realise they have created a core cast without one. It happens in almost every genre, and my feeling is the same regardless – you actually need to bother with the whole constructing an actual character thing if you want to add another character that you plan to give substantial screen time.
ANYWAY. My point is – how do you actually go about fixing these bland, one dimensional, pointless characters? In the above mentioned room, we had a LOT of trouble trying to fix the pointless woman we had on our hands. I suggested a few things (so many push backs) and mostly, the conversation was moved on to other places instead of dealing with the discomfort of making the female character something more than just a sex object. It wasn’t until I was asked to look over the draft pitch materials earlier this month, to provide feedback, that I was struck with why this ridiculously meaningless character really pissed me off so much – she had no impact on the stakes.
Characters need to have a tangible impact on, not just influence over, the story stakes in order to really matter. Further to this, what the key secondary characters want or need must impact the want or need of the protagonist for them to justify their place as part of your core cast.
There. That’s it. It wasn’t that this character was bland or one-note or one dimensional that was the problem – though all those things are obviously problems, but the kind you can fix once you understand the role that character serves. The big problem was that this pointless woman was pointless by the very fact she had absolutely no power over or impact on the stakes of the story for the main protagonists. I’m not talking influence here either – fun, funny or memorable bit players that may have sway are fine and dandy, but when you are looking at who really matters in a story, who is most needed, it’s the characters whose actions and motivations will directly impact the chances of the protagonist achieving their goal, or the value of that goal. And the best way for them to do this is when their individual goals are at odds with that of the protagonist.
When faced with a character that doesn’t fulfil this criteria, they shouldn’t be considered main cast. If you desperately need them to be main cast, and not sure how to go about inventing a purpose for them that feels organic and relevant, look to your protagonist’s goals. What would undermine your protagonist? What would challenge them? What would get in their damn way? And the more lateral and interesting but understandable (to your audience) you can be, the better.
So yeah, that’s what I take away from an otherwise uncomfortable and disappointing work experience. My only regret is not being able to articulate this at the time, but I was too busy just trying to keep my head above water. Oh well. Onwards…
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS
Boy, if there was ever a year in which we all deserved this hilariously whacky and unexpectedly touching documentary series, this is certainly it. Cheese rolling, dog dancing, fantasy hairstyling, frog jumping, yo-yo-ing and chilli eating. And produced and narrated by Rainn Wilson no less. Wham-a-lama-ding-dong. We Are The Champions is a (mostly) serious look at the people who take very, very silly competitions very, very seriously. With every episode, I found myself near tears, laughing so hard at just how much these ridiculous competitions meant to the people featured, wondering what on earth they were doing with their lives, only to be so moved and captivated by the end, that I found myself cheering loudly for them from my couch, alone in my own home. What a delight. Even Trixie and Katya have joined the growing fan base for this series. Bring on series 2!…
Happy holiday prep everyone and if you happen to be in Australia, wishing you reliable air-con and zero bushfire emergencies! Stay safe lovelies x