“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug
Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.
In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.)
Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.
Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.
Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.
“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.” Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay
It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.
We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:
Lawrence of Arabia
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde
In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:
It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.
Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:
Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.
“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about.“ — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct
If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”
The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle.
Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures.
And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)
Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.
“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.” – Paramount Story Editor
So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?
The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.
Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream. Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.
“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” William Romanowski
Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith