Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 5: Reader Identification

Tap into the Protagonist’s qualities which a reader can connect with.

Image for post
Image for post

As we prepare for the 2019 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge, a five-part series on Screenwriting Back to Basics. Today: Reader Identification.

This is one of the simplest yet most important basic screenwriting principles of all: In writing a Protagonist, we try to create a sense of reader identification with the character. How? Imbue the Protagonist with some qualities with which a reader can connect. Why is this important? Here are two reasons:

(1) When you write a script, you want people to read the whole thing from FADE IN to FADE OUT. In the case of Hollywood, the gatekeepers are script readers. These noble, weary souls get inundated with crap scripts, day after day, week after week. They read them all the way through, but that’s their job, they get paid to do that in order to provide script coverage. But with studio executives and producers, talent and their ‘people,’ you’re lucky to get them to crack open your script. When they do decide to turn your script, you want to provide them every reason in the world to stay interested in the story, to keep turning pages. There are many contributing factors to what makes a compelling read and one of the most significant is that there are aspects of the Protagonist character with which the reader can identify.

A great example is the movie Falling Down. Here is an IMDB Trivia note about the movie:

Every studio in Hollywood turned down Ebbe Roe Smith’s script. Producer Arnold Kopelson was getting to the stage of considering cable TV when Michael Douglas came across the script and pronounced it one of the best he’d ever read.

Easy to understand why that script was a tough sell. Here’s the story’s premise per IMDB:

An unemployed defense worker frustrated with the various flaws he sees in society, begins to psychotically and violently lash out against them.

Here’s the one-sheet:

Image for post
Image for post

That is your Protagonist pictured there, a hard guy to like. But there is something about the character Bill Foster with which Michael Douglas identified — and he was banking on the fact that a lot of people would which would in turn compel them to see the movie: FRUSTRATION. Obviously, Foster’s frustration is deep, dark, and longstanding, building up over many years to a breaking point, but all of us can identify with what provokes him: traffic jams, bad customer service at restaurants, surly strangers, scalding hot weather, and so on. We’ve endured frustrating circumstances, likely many times in our lives. Evidently Douglas identified with Foster in a powerful way, enough to take a project that could not sell to get it green lit and produced.

(2) The psychological dynamic here is pretty easy to grasp: Identification pulls the reader into the story. They participate in the story through the Protagonist. That’s a key to how the magic of movies works, transporting you out of your seat and into what’s transpiring on the screen: call it the power of identification.

Now I’m sure you’ve read or heard about how important it is to create a sympathetic Protagonist. Indeed, in the case of most movies, that’s true. It stands to reason that the more sympathetic the Protagonist is, the more supportive of that character a viewer will be. But it’s not all about sympathy. Here is an excerpt from an interview with screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Election, Sideways):

Hollywood’s desire for sympathetic, feel-good characters rubs Payne and Taylor the wrong way. Taylor: “To me, it’s are we interested enough, do we want to watch that person…it’s complete horses**t that that’s what people want to see, is only sympathetic characters.” Taylor continues: “There are [kinds] of characters that appeal to us, and I don’t think we’re interested in people who don’t do anything wrong.

Payne agrees: “I never talk about sympathetic characters. Number one, the truth is sympathetic. Number two, we make comedies so we want the movie to be sympathetic…we’re interested in people, we want to see truthful people…we show our love for people precisely by including all aspects [of a character], as many as we can, in the limited form of a two-hour film.” Payne says that if an exec says your protagonist isn’t sympathetic, just say: “It hasn’t been cast yet. That’s the answer.” The right actor can warm the audience up to any role, even if it appears unlikable on the page. Payne: “Why are we interested in Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Why are we interested in Michael Corleone? They’re fascinating. What’s more interesting, a cobra or a kitten?” Beware, Payne says, “especially when you’re talking about likeable. Just avoid those discussions, they’re tiring. Don’t get lured into the turf of those discussions, because they’re moronic.”

With the power of identification, you can create deeply flawed, even unlikable characters and still make them work in a script.

A final anecdote to drive home the point. I’ve read that when Harrison Ford first read what George Lucas had in mind with a new project involving an action-adventure hero Indiana Jones, Ford said he loved the character, but he felt Jones was too perfect. To paraphrase his response, “How is anybody going to identify with him?” So they gave Jones a flaw: He hates snakes. That one little bit of business humanized the character.

So when you develop your Protagonist — indeed all your characters — be mindful of the power of reader identification.

This week, I have been posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious. Good to remember and especially for those writers who will be participating in the 2019 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge.

30 Days. Fade In. Fade Out.

To join the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group, go here.

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 1: Writing Scenes

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 2: The Protagonist’s Arc

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 3: Plot Emerges From Character

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 4: Character = Function

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store