After I’d gone to see the stage musical Kinky Boots (for the first of many times) last spring, I realised that I had never seen the film, which is now ten years old. It was a very strange experience.
I’d been blasting the cast album for a few days and knew all the songs, and remembered how moments worked on stage, and the non-sung-through aspect was obviously the first hurdle. The second one was that the main theme (daddy issues) was heightened in the play to show the parallels between the two main characters in a way that provided not only many wonderful visual opportunities and beautiful duets, but also made the piece more consistent. What struck me was also the characters.
Know where they fit
The narrator is Charlie Price, who reluctantly inherits the family factory after his father’s untimely passing, and starts working with drag queen Lola to turn the factory’s business around. Lola is the main character. She’s a fantastic character, someone that actors can get their teeth into (Chiwetel Ejiofor obviously does).
If you’re kicking an idea around, you may want to play with it across mediums
, as it’ll help you know the wheels within your story, which beats work and which don’t. But you first need to analyse what your point of entry is as a writer (character, plot or story), and who the emotional anchor will be for the audience. Gatsby is not the narrator of The Great Gatsby
, and Molière’s Tartuffe
doesn’t show the eponymous character until the third act (out of 5).
Save the cat, don’t save the cat
Blake Snyder’s seminal screenwriting book argues that in order to create an engaging character that will have the audience in their corner, they need to be shown during the first minutes of the film saving the cat: the hero is running late, on the way sees a kid crying for their cat stuck in a tree, yet the hero stops to make the kid happy and save the cat, punctuality be damned.
That’s 200% true in film as we need to have some sort of moral anchor, and if a film doesn’t make us root for someone in some way, then there’s no point in continuing the film. You don’t necessarily have to that in a novel; as this medium is far more intricate (narratively and emotionally) for us to simply need to root for a character. Same goes for gaming: think of Tomb Raider. When you are Lara Croft, do you really need more than that to be on her side?
Point of view
Whatever your point of entry into your story (an image, a character, a plot…) you’ll have to establish point of view. If the narrative evolves principally through one character, you may have a novel (even a graphic novel
) on your hands. If you have several characters, consider a play. Too many locations? Perhaps it’s a movie.
Lines are moving in storytelling. The gods of writing will tell you that your character has to be active. How about Her or 12 years a slave? A character has to be likable. How about Taxi Driver?
Those lines will move depending on what medium you’re working in. The story beats will shift. All that changes.
The few unchangeable rules should be that the story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end (as per Artistotle’s Poetics
), perhaps not necessarily in that order
(as per Jean-Luc Godard). Whoever your character is, they have to have an intention, a desire, and they have to have something in their path that’s stopping them from getting it (it could even be themselves).
Really skilled writers make their characters torn, which gives way to interesting situations: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment essentially shows two characters torn between choices. Shirley MacLaine’s wants to be in love, but also wants to avoid the pain of heartbreak, Jack Lemmon’s wants to be a good employee, but he also wants the girl… Each character has conflicting aspirations, and if either one of them chooses the wrong one, they could perhaps miss out on a great love…
Intent and obstacle are what it’s all about.