So last week I took some kryptonite-laced shots at the man of steel for being a “reluctant” protagonist, an issue I contend can destroy a screenplay. What’s a reluctant protagonist? It’s a hero who doesn’t want to take on the problem. I contend that we don’t like our heroes wimpy. We don’t like them sitting back and doing nothing. It’s the exact opposite of what the word “hero” means. However, there’s no such thing as a screenwriting rule that works across the board. There are times where the reluctant protagonist works, The Godfather being one of those examples. This gave me an idea to kill two birds with one stone. I’m not the foremost authority on The Godfather, and therefore wanted a reason to read it. And I knew that Michael Corleone, the main character, is a reluctant protagonist, which would allow me to see why the character works here when in so many other scripts, it doesn’t. I’ve also always been drawn to how slow stories work. Only the best writers know how to keep you turning the pages during a slow burn. So those are the main things I went into this script looking for. Let’s see if I found my answers, or any good tips for that matter. (you can have 500 MORE TIPS just like these by buying my e-book here)
1) Counter your hero’s reluctance with positive qualities – I think the biggest issue with reluctant heroes is when you couple them with a downbeat or depressed disposition. The combination of those two things always makes characters droll and boring. Look no further than Superman in Man of Steel for that. Instead, look for traits that CONTRAST that negative quality. One of the best traits you can use to offset this is charisma. Michael Corleone has it. William Wallace (a reluctant hero from Braveheart) had it. A double dose of negativity can quickly make your hero moody, depressed, and a downer. Steer clear of that with a positive trait (if not charisma then something else!).
2) If you have a reluctant protagonist, the earlier you can break out of being reluctant, the better – In actuality, most screenplays have reluctant protagonists at the start of the story. This is the period where they’d rather stay in the safety of their everyday lives than take on the pressures of this new adventure that’s presented itself. So we almost always see reluctant protagonists become willing and active participants at the beginning of the second act. For stories where this doesn’t happen, note that the longer you keep your hero reluctant, the more frustrated with him we’re going to get. Because we came to your movie to see your hero DO SHIT, not RESIST DOING SHIT. Michael Corleone starts being active pretty early, when he must protect his father after the assassination attempt.
3) There’s a difference between an reluctant active protagonist and an reluctant inactive protagonist – I think the problem I had with Man of Steel was that Clark was not only reluctant to do anything, he DIDN’T do anything. A reluctant character works much better if, even though he doesn’t want to get involved, HE DOES. Michael Corleone doesn’t want to be doing the things he’s doing, but he does them anyway. Another famous reluctant character, Mad Max, didn’t want to be there helping any of those people, but he did because it furthered his own agenda. Ditto with William Wallace. He didn’t want war, but he realized it needed to happen to free his country. So write a reluctant protagonist, just make sure he’s out there still being active.
4) If you have a character you need us to like who does bad things, introduce them doing good things – Vito Corleone (The Godfather) does a lot of bad shit. He’s hurt a lot of people. He’s killed a lot of people. But the power of writing is that you can make the audience like ANYONE. Don’t believe me? Have you seen Silence Of The Lambs? Yes, writers have made cannibalistic serial killers likable. One of the simplest ways to do this is to introduce your “bad” character doing something good. Vito Corleone is introduced helping a man whose daughter was beaten and nearly raped by two men who got away with it. He orders those men to be taken care of. How can you dislike a guy who’s taking down rapists?
5) Outline big party scenes – Big party/event/wedding scenes (anything with a lot of people) are some of the hardest to write. Writers often bounce around from character to character without a plan, which results in a messy directionless sequence. When you’re writing a big scene, like the famous wedding scene that opens The Godfather, make sure to plot out beforehand every character and what that character is doing. Preferably, you’ll have characters that need something during the sequence (a goal!), as that tends to make things more focused and interesting. Here we’d map out all the people coming to the Godfather with their requests. We’d map out Miachel showing up with his new girlfriend – what they’re going to talk about and why. We’d map out a scene to show that Carlo, who’s marrying the Don’s daughter, is sketchy. We’d map out Michael’s brother Sonny, who cheats on his wife with one of the bridesmaids. Map all of this out ahead of time and make sure each set of characters is doing something IMPORTANT. That’ll keep you from lingering on irrelevant stuff, which is where these big sequences go to die. Have a plan and you’ll do just fine at your next wedding.
6) A reluctant protagonist in a drama has a much better chance of working than a reluctant protagonist in an action film – Know what genre you’re writing when considering the reluctant protagonist. In an action movie, when your audience wants a lot of action, it’s going to be pretty silly if your main character is avoiding it all. In a slower drama, however, where plot and action aren’t as important, you have more freedom to play with a reluctant lead. I’d still be wary of it, but you do have more freedom there.
7) The best setups and payoffs establish high stakes during the setup – Remember, a payoff doesn’t really resonate unless you establish high stakes when it’s set up. That’s what makes the famous “horse head in the bed” scene so powerful. The day before, Jack Woltz, our unlucky movie producer, shows Hagen (Don’s lawyer) his horse stable and gushes about how much he loves horses, especially one in particular, a 600,000 dollar horse which he’ll put out to stud, leading to endless riches. Guess which head ends up under his covers? This scene doesn’t work the same way if Woltz casually passes a race track and barely points out a horse that he likes. We build the stakes up high by having him LOVE this horse.
8) Always look for an indirect way to handle backstory/exposition – Remember, one of the most boring ways to convey backstory or exposition is to lay it out in a very straightforward manner via dialogue. Instead, try to find an angle that conveys the information in a nontraditional way. They did this quite cleverly in The Godfather. Michael tells Kay (his girlfriend who knows nothing about his family’s lifestyle) about Luca Brazi, the muscle for his father. His story is about how Luca was sent over to take care of these men who attacked his father. The backstory for this character he gets into is very graphic and violent. But Coppola added an angle. Michael is smiling while he’s telling the story, so Kay isn’t sure if he’s telling the truth. Gone is the on-the-nose boring rundown we’re USED TO in these situations, replaced by a, “is he or isn’t he telling the truth” angle that makes the same information kind of fun. It’s a slight change, but it’s these slight changes that separate you from the next guy, who’s doing it the obvious way.
9) Conflict, suspense and mystery are your friends when writing a slow story – When you don’t have urgency (as is the case with The Godfather), you need to use other tools to keep your audience interested, or else they get impatient. You do this with these three tools: suspense, conflict, and mystery (and tension – though it can be argued that tension is conflict). Consistent use of these should keep even the slowest stories interesting. We see conflict, for example, in all of the requests of Vito Corleone, who makes his guests work for it. We see tension in his relationship with Michael, who doesn’t want to be involved in the family business. We have suspense in what’s going to happen with Johnny, the movie star who desperately needs a part from a producer who won’t give it to him, in Michael needing to save his father at the hospital when he knows the bad guys are coming, and leading up to the dinner where Michael plans to kill the police chief and Sollozzo. There aren’t a lot of mysteries in The Godfather, but that’s an option for you to use as well. If you’re writing a slow screenplay and you’re not using these three tools frequently, your script is probably boring.
10) How committed are you? – The more I read, the more I find that the deepest most emotionally affecting stories are based on books and real life. Why? Because the writer has tons of backstory and character knowledge to draw from. When a screenplay is written from nothing, the writer often doesn’t fill in the details that happened before the story. As a result, the characters never project any depth (why would they? They never existed before they were placed on the page). I’ve constantly been looking for a solution to this. How does one manage the same depth of a book adaptation without writing a book? Is it possible? Or should a screenwriter actually write a book before his screenplay? It sounds nuts but I GUARANTEE you, if you did that, your screenplay would be a hundred times deeper than if you didn’t. And aren’t we all looking for an advantage over the next guy? Reading the opening of The Godfather (based on the book by the same name), with this huge wedding, with Vito Corleone listening to requests for help, with Sonny cheating on his wife, with Vito’s daughter desperately trying to keep a man she barely has, with Michael introducing his new girlfriend to everyone, to Luca Brazi, to movie stars pleading for a break, a spec writer just wouldn’t know or care about 75% of these characters. They’d know their hero, they’d know the second most important guy in the scene, and then maybe one other character (the lead girl). Everybody else they’d know their first name, what they’re wearing, and that’d be it. And that’s exactly why all spec scripts feel so thin. To measure up to this expected level, try to write as much backstory as you possibly can on every character in order to give them as rich and as detailed of a history as you can. Then and only then, will they project the kind of depth and presence characters in adapted scripts like The Godfather project.