Saturday, May 16, 2009

The One Emotion Your Protagonist Should Never Have...

There's one emotion which is a complete turn-off in movies and TV series. Let your protagonist indulge in it, and you are guaranteed to lose the symapthy (and even empathy) of your audience straightaway.

Funnily enough, it's a quite common condition, which most people have experienced at some time in their life (and some even specialize in it).

That emotion is: Self-pity.

For some reason, there is hardly anything as off-putting as seeing a main character feeling sorry for himself. It just makes you want to slap him upside the head and yell at him to pull his act together. Even if you're prone to the occassional bout of self-pity in real life, to see it enacted on the screen is a highly irritating experience.

For reasons of drama, self-pity is a pitfall as well. A protagonist who feels sorry for himself is a protagonist who stops acting, who doesn't try to change his situation or achieve a goal any longer. He basically stops the forward momentum of the narrative stone dead.

This is not to say the character cannot react to a certain situation by feeling desperate, or wronged, or that you cannot have him or her lament his fate - but that must be a momentary thing. A short lull, catching of breath, before the quest continues.

Now, you will rarely see a self-pitying protagonist on the screen - most scripts in which they feature will never make it to anything resembling the production stage.

So you might wonder - if we never get to see it, is the anti-self-pity bias wrong, perhaps? Might it not reveal new psychological vistas for us to explore?

Well, luckily there's a movie which proves my point (and dispelled any doubts I might have had myself on the subject). It's not a good movie, and it's definitely obscure in the West. It's called What A Hero! and stars Hong Kong top idol Andy Lau, who isn't just Hong Kong's most popular singer but who has starred in just about every genre of film except for erotica.

What A Hero! (1992) is a sort of action comedy - it's about the rivalry between two police teams, one led by Andy Lau, the other by Roy Cheung. Their rivalry doesn't just extend to the professional level, they're both expert kung fu fighters as well (in the movie, not in real life) and they are going to participate in a big tournament. So far, so good.
There are some bad guys running around Hong Kong, Andy and his team manage to arrest them but Roy manages to take the credit and unjustly is seen as a hero.

And what does Andy do?

He goes off to sulk for thirty minutes of a 90-minute film.

That's right. For what amounts to the second half of the second act, our hero quits his job, hides away in his house, and looks wistfully off-camera as a few cloying Canto-pop ballads assault our ears.

And while the film was nowhere near a classic up to this point, there were a few amusing scenes, a couple of snippets of decent action, and a plot which, though clich├ęd, at least offered the anticipation of some good action scenes.

Finally, the pleading of Andy's mom and his girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) causes him to see the error of his ways, and it's off to the kung fu competition for him. But by this time no one cares any more - and the competition itself offers no quality action which might have slightly redeemed the whole enterprise - but that's beside the point (and it means you don't have to scour the internet to get your hands on this film - as I once did, a decade ago). The point is that a reasonably entertaining potboiler suddenly becomes one of the most boring films you could imagine, and every emotional involvement with the hero is cut short.

So, self-pity: save it for real life, and keep it out of your scripts!

No comments: