Gerald Hanks Filmography

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Concept vs. Character, or What a Talking Raccoon and a Walking Tree Taught Me About Screenwriting

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on some panels at the Comicpalooza convention in Houston. I moderated a horror writing panel with a number of accomplished writers, including Joe  R. Lansdale. The next day, I was on a screenwriting panel with Joe's son, Keith. These two gentlemen provided a wealth of information and advice to aspiring screenwriters about the importance of characterization.

As I walked the convention floor, I also talked to a number of writers who were displaying their books. When I would talk to most of these writers, they would pitch their books based on the concept of their story world, rather than the struggles of their characters within those worlds. This pitching approached turned me off, as I'm sure it did to other convention-goers, based on the number of copies left on the authors' tables.

As I've said in previous posts, audiences fall in love with characters, not ideas. The biggest example of the importance of characters over concepts often come from the genres that are also the most in love with its concepts: sci-fi and fantasy.

The examples I use in my teaching and consulting work are the characters of Rocket Raccoon and Groot from Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy films. On paper, the concepts of these characters are so absurd as to be laughable.

  • A three-foot-tall talking raccoon with a gun fetish? 
  • An eight-foot-tall walking tree that says the same three words?

If any writer were to pitch these characters in almost any venue, be it film, novel, or TV series, they would likely be laughed out of the room.

So why did it work? Why do millions of people love these characters, even if they aren't always likable?

The main reason is that writer/director James Gunn treated Rocket and Groot like characters, and not like caricatures. In the first film, he showed Rocket's pain and anger at his transformation, which he hides behind his false bravado. He showed that Groot was a loyal friend and slow to anger, until he was pushed into action and made the choice to sacrifice himself to save his friends.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the films of the DC Extended Universe, most notably “Batman v.Superman: Dawn of Justice”. On paper, these concepts are a no-brainer: take the most recognizable superheroes in the world, pit them against each other, and then put them against a foe so tough that they have to work together to defeat it.

Simple, right? So how could two award-winning writers in Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Dark Knight Trilogy) get it so wrong? One of the points of failure in the story was that they failed to make the main characters relatable. Both heroes (and their alter egos) come across as aloof and disconnected from their world, and from the audience, despite their “maternal connection” to each other.

This infatuation with concept over characterization is a major reason why writers, especially writers of genre fiction, struggle to build and audience. As I wrote in my first post, no one cares about an “original idea” or “ground-breaking concept” until they care about the characters. Strong, well-developed characters can save a flimsy premise, but a great premise won't save flimsy characters.

If you need help in creating strong characters for your screenplay, novel, or comic book concept, contact us at Story Into Screenplay. Whether you have the seed of an idea, or a fully-completed feature-length script, Story Into Screenplay can help. We offer script consultation, coverage reports, and rewrite services to ensure that your screenplay is ready for the most discerning reader.

You can reach us by email at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send us a message on our Facebook page.

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