In a previous post, I described a common failure in the scripts I am asked to read – the script crammed with compelling supporting characters that features an oddly unfocused protagonist. I have since decided that an opposite problem also exists.
I recently read a script in which the protagonist was a beautifully detailed creation with a gaping hole in his life and choices looming ahead. But despite all that lovely story-engine work, the script remained stuck in place. There were needs, but no real obstacles. There were choices, but no real costs. The writer was only interested in the protagonist and had only bothered to develop the protagonist's story. Without equally needy and choosy supporting characters, the story lacked all conflict.
I would say this is an obvious point, but this is not the first such script I've read. Not by a lot. Perhaps it's obvious to me from my years as an actor. There's an old joke about the actor who played the doctor in the first production of Streetcar Named Desire. The character is barely a cameo role – the doctor only appears in the final pages to lead Blanche DuBois off to the nut house. Before the opening, a reporter who knew nothing about the play asked this actor what it was about. "It's about this doctor, see," the actor earnestly replied, "and he meets this lady who wants to depend on him. And he really wants to help, but he's torn, because..." and so on. You get the joke. There are no small parts, only small actors, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, when you're in one of those small parts, this joke is funny. But like many an old cliche, it's also true.
There are no small parts for writers, either – and we have to play ALL the parts. Every character must need something and must face choices. They must be the stars of their own little movies, so when the protagonist's movie gets in their way – hello, conflict!