Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Life is What Happens While...

(MINOR SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Independence Day, Pretty Woman, The Visitor)

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

-John Lennon

John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallize something I think is very valuable when creating characters. Many stories are about an event that a character is forced to respond to. In order for those characters to seem like believable human beings they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. They have to have other plans.

Consider Some Like It Hot (story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The story is about Joe and Jerry, two musicians who witness a mob hit and have to go undercover as women in an all-girl band. But they aren’t planning any of that when we meet them.

Instead, they have just landed a job at a speakeasy. Jerry wants to use their upcoming pay to see a dentist about a toothache, but Joe thinks they should bet it on a dog at the track. We learn that they have a bunch of outstanding debts they need to deal with. Then they lose their job when the speakeasy is raided. They hock their coats to bet on Joe’s dog and it loses. They learn of another possible gig but it’s far away so they arrange to borrow a car. It is while they’re picking up the car that they witness the murder.

The toothache and dog and debts and job in the hinterlands have no real bearing on the story. But by the time we get to the murder, the catalyst that sets the whole story in motion, these guys feel like real people. We care about them and the journey they're about to go on.

In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy), Walter isn’t planning on meeting an immigrant couple and getting involved in their struggle. He's a character who's lost direction in his life, but neither is he just biding time waiting for something to happen to him.

Walter is a burned out college professor whose job seems to be in some jeopardy. However he is still teaching and has certain obligations to show up to class and department meetings. We learn he’s been working on a book…though he hasn’t put any effort into it for a while. He’s also taking piano lessons in an attempt to honor his dead wife's memory. And he’s asked to present a paper he co-authored at a conference. He doesn’t want to do it, but he’s not given much choice by his bosses at the university.

I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. In The Visitor Walter’s short-term plan is to present the paper and get back in time for a department meeting; his medium-term plan is to learn the piano; and his long-term plan is to publish the book. That’s a lot of plans for a character without direction! But it makes him feel real.

Independence Day (written by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich) demonstrates this well. Captain Steven Hiller – played by Will Smith – isn’t sitting around waiting for aliens to invade. He has plans.

His short-term plan is to enjoy a day off barbecuing with his girlfriend and her son. We then learn that he’s considering whether to propose to his girlfriend (his medium-term plan). The problem is his girlfriend is a stripper, which his friend thinks will interfere with Hiller’s long-term plan – to fly the space shuttle.

That long-term plan will come into play by the end of the movie. That’s a good thing of course! One of the reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want. Walter's desire to explore a musical side will help him connect to the immigrant couple he meets in The Visitor.

In Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, and Independence Day the catalyst disrupts the characters’ plans. Not every story works that way, of course. In Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe), the main character’s plan to become a rock journalist is what leads the story to happen.

In Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) we learn that Edward has plans to close a big business deal and that he wants to be back in New York by Sunday because he has tickets to the Met. These plans aren’t exactly derailed when he meets Vivian, but they provide context to their relationship. More importantly they make Edward seem like a man living a life of momentum. The character could just as easily have been an L.A. businessman driving home from work, but that would have felt like a stock character.

Let the story happen to your characters while they're busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!

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