Monday, May 17, 2010

Does Your Main Character Have The Right Adjective?

Having an intriguing main character at the centre of your screenplay is hugely important, especially when it comes to writing loglines and pitching story ideas. One of the ingredients that make a main character interesting, is a recognizable weakness, with which the audience can identify emotionally.

Which is why one of the essential components of a logline is a description of the main character that includes a suggestion of the journey they are about to embark on. A description of their profession, family or social status is informative, but doesn’t suggest a story. What the description requires is something that points at the main character’s inner conflict, the emotional obstacle they will have to confront in the story. Choosing the right adjective or descriptive phrase is paramount.

Imagine the main character is a plumber. Here are some very different plumbers:

- A depressed, recently divorced plumber
- A plumber guilty of domestic violence
- A sex-addicted plumber
- An overbearing, gay plumber
- A plumber suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
- An overambitious, female plumber
- A self-conscious, overweight plumber
- A plumber on the verge of retirement

Each description evokes different story possibilities, whether dramatic or comedic. Each description hints at what is causing problems in this particular plumber’s life at the beginning of the story. This is what drives the main narrative conflict. It suggests the internal obstacle the character has to deal with, a trait or habit which makes them their own worst enemy, in the context of this particular story.

How about the same adjectives applied to, say, a nurse?

- A depressed, recently divorced nurse
- A male nurse guilty of domestic violence
- A sex-addicted nurse
- An overbearing, gay nurse
- A nurse suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
- An overambitious nurse
- A self-conscious, overweight nurse
- A nurse on the verge of retirement

The same description, coupled with a different occupation, suggests a whole set of different story possibilities.

The adjective, or descriptive phrase, hints at the basic flaw with which the main character starts out. Together with a simple description of their occupation, it immediately suggests a basic narrative and a story world, as well as indicating the character’s main weakness.

In the above examples, depressed, recently divorced suggests a story in which the main character might learn that love is still possible, or that they need to make drastic changes in their life, or they might attempt suicide, and so on. Overambitious suggests a story in which the main character is going to be painfully (or comically) confronted with their limitations, or perhaps a story in which we gradually realize the main character is severely deluded. And so on, each description suggesting different emotional conflicts at the heart of the story.

So the main character’s basic position at the outset of the story, contained in that brief description, is the starting point of their arc. It suggests what the character will have learned (or not learned, depending on the genre) by the end of the story. Which is why the choice of adjective describing the main character in the logline is far more important than you might imagine.


Anonymous said...

hey dave,
believe or not I dropped out of school in grade 9,
and can't remember anything they taught me
but i love screenwriting
with the facebook and internet way of taking , who needs adjectives?
most of my friends type with style and urban rap mentality and groove
i think slangs the ways of urban dictionaries will replace adjectives and the whole grammar system
did you read the new script IMMORTALS or HALO yet, i saw a sample,its very fast and very un-grammar!

Raving Dave Herman said...

You're referring to the style of writing in the screenplay itself, and in that respect I agree with you. Individual screenwriters have unique voices, and different genres make varying demands on dialogue and scene descriptions.

However, in this post I'm specifically referring to the logline, the basic premise for the story. This is not technically about grammar, but about the basic description of your main character. If the logline clearly hints at what the main character is missing at the beginning of the story, that sets the tone for the narrative and genre of the story, and gives potential readers a good idea of what to expect.

Leslie said...

Hi Dave,

Just arrived here from Truby's website where I found a link to your blog. I'm not a screenwriter--just an aspiring novelist interested in all types of storytelling-- but in just two minutes I uncovered a treasure trove of posts here that will be a huge help as I struggle to complete this darn novel!