A couple of weeks ago, I was looking to find a kick ass recent action film to use as an example for a project. I needed a movie that fit clearly into the action genre, but had a hero who was interesting and original.
I can’t tell you how many films I watched, and yet all the main characters seemed to blur into one. They all had a daughter who got trapped in the White House, they drank, or they had made some terrible mistake that they now needed to “make right.” All that money spent on explosions and car chases and fight scenes, and they couldn’t create a protagonist that was remotely interesting?
I immediately thought of UNFORGIVEN, a classic western that embraces all the conventions of its genre and yet manages to make its hero remarkable and singular. David Webb Peoples, the screenwriter, brilliantly satisfies our expectations, while at the same time taking us somewhere completely different with his protagonist. How did he do it?
And more importantly, if you are writing in a genre that has strong conventions, how can YOU create a hero we’ve never seen before?
Here are some tips…
1. Give your protagonist a very specific past. Make it unusual. Give them something to overcome that’s not cliché. (Remember Clarice Starling and the screaming lambs?)
2. Create a physical trait that marks them. (See Napoleon’s hair-do and glasses above)
3. Give your main character a universal emotional need (love, power, revenge) but let them have an unusual specific way of pursuing this goal in the story.
4. Create a world or context for your main character that allows him or her to have a special skill of some kind. Something weird and cool. (Again, see Napoleon for his dance moves.)
5. Give them a distinctive voice. How do they talk? Are they quiet? Are they gregarious? Do they mumble? Do they speak in an offbeat or interesting way?
6. Allow them to have a unique perspective on the world. A great example of this can be found in the recent release CALVARY, starring Brendan Gleeson as an Irish priest in a small town. When he’s threatened, he doesn’t respond the way most of us would. This makes him deeply compelling as a character and the climax of the movie a beautiful thing to behold.
7. Go NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. And what I mean by this is don’t underestimate the quirk factor. Especially if you’re writing a comedy.
Here’s how David Webb Peoples did all of the above. Will Munny in UNFORGIVEN has a very specific past; he’s a former alcoholic outlaw who legendarily killed a ton of people in scary ways. But he was turned around by meeting his wife Claudia, and promised her to never drink or kill again. He has physical traits that mark him. At the beginning of the movie, he can’t shoot straight or even mount a horse. Munny has a universal emotional want (to protect his children) and a distinctive immediate goal in the story to satisfy this need. He has to kill two men who cut up a prostitute in order to get the bounty money to feed his son and daughter. His special skill is that once he drinks, he shoots cleaner and more brutally than anyone else alive. Munny’s “voice” is distinctive. He barely speaks at all. And when he does, we LISTEN. He also has an unusual perspective on the world– despite the violence that surrounds him, he truly loves his dead wife and wants to keep his vow to her.
Take action! If your main character feels run-of-the-mill, how can you apply one of the above strategies to make him or her more original? Can you give your protagonist a quirk? A cool backstory? A goal in the movie that’s unique?
Don’t settle for generic. Always make your hero “fresh.”
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