Consider a protagonist: he is an average Joe with marriage problems whom we find driving home from work as the story begins. He runs a red light at a deserted intersection. A police officer is watching. The officer turns on his emergency lights and pulls our hero over.

The police officer asks for the usual information, license and registration … suddenly the protagonist starts the car and speeds off! The officer races to his vehicle and sets off after him leading into a high-speed chase. Soon TV stations are broadcasting the events as they unfold. Other officers lay down tack strips in an effort to crash our hero’s car; they fire shotguns at him! The police nearly catch him a few times, however the protagonist performs astounding stunt driving moves and escapes!

Now he is a wanted man—a notorious criminal who evaded the cops in a highly publicized car chase that the entire country watched live—hijinks ensue.  I argue that if you round up one hundred people like this lead character and put them in this scenario, not one of them would rather be the subject of a nation-wide manhunt in lieu of accepting a traffic ticket. Perhaps the young writer would say, “This character would”. Why would anyone want to change that aspect of his character?

Now we are confused. The protagonist evades the cops rather than accepting a traffic ticket. That did not make sense. There wasn’t anything about that character up to that point that suggested an undercurrent of criminal behavior. That aside, there is a larger wrench in the works. The rest of the script hangs on that unbelievable moment. Now we do not follow why the protagonist fled the cop instead of getting a ticket.

Using a real-world example, the The Day After Tomorrow suffers similar plot problems. The movie is based on a sudden and remarkably fast climate change that results in global catastrophes—100 foot high tidal waves that first drown Manhattan, then succumb to a big freeze that literally stops all living things cold.

Picture the flash freezing process used by factories to keep freshly picked veggies or butchered meats fresh at a city scale. The attention to detail focused on the visual effects is captivating, however, not enough to rescue the movie from grave plot disconnects.

In the story, the protagonist Dennis Quaid sets out with two colleagues in this newly frozen Earth to rescue his son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, in order to finally prove to him that he is capable of following through on a promise. I doubt the average person would take the same action.

Yes, saving a loved one is a great driving force in a disaster film, but it requires heart-stopping FX in order to sell movie seats. The reason given for Quaid’s character to become suddenly driven to risk not only his life, but that of his two colleagues is implausible. Quaid’s character finds himself in a domino effect of life threatening situations. He champions through, although the same cannot be said of his colleagues.

What this script really needed was the “or else” factor. To work, the protagonist needs to save someone who is in more danger than the act requires.  Otherwise, the average person cannot relate to it.

Remember, if the protagonist does anything strange, the audience will need a great explanation for it. Even if that strange thing is something that you or someone you know might do you must keep in mind that the audience will demand to know exactly why the protagonist followed a particular path. After sitting for two hours, the audience should walk away exhilarated, having lived vicariously in the hero’s shoes. What would the average person do, in that situation? Your character should do the same as any other given character.

Realistic Script Reactions

Each character will react differently to any given situation. Our job as writers is to know how each character would react and make to ensure that they do it.  When they do not react in a believable manner, the story comes to a sudden stop. Nothing kills a script faster than having characters react in strange and atypical ways—the audience will not be able to identify with them, or worse, will not care about your character or their decision.

Recently I watched a screening of a horror movie. In this script, a group of teenagers have car troubles while on the killer’s turf. True to form, the teens are killed off one after the other. In one scene, the dwindling group of teens is searching for their missing friend. The scene leads to a car stashed behind a deserted house; the female protagonist opens the trunk only to find the decapitated body of her boyfriend.

Her reaction was odd: she calmly shouted to the others that she had found the missing friend.  Had she gone into shock, virtually catatonic, I would have understood. Instead, the actor’s response is no more special than discovering a dust bunny.

Stand in Your Character’s Shoes

We all are familiar with the absurd deaths in some horror movies when characters overreact to situations by either screaming dementedly, or arguing in an escalating fashion with one another. These examples are called “false reactions” and weaken the power of the story. The characters and ultimately, the movie, would reach greater aesthetic value were the deaths followed by a truly realistic character reaction scene.

Movies tell stories visually and every great story should have a character(s) that is faced with a problem that must be overcome. A character’s integrity and personality is discovered through conflict, and how that individual responds to the conflict in a unique and personal way. This is how characters become distinct believable people, allowing the audience to make a connection.

Over Reactions

The adage, “everything in moderation” should be your mantra while writing. Your characters must have authentic reactions to given situations, and those reactions should not be over the top. At times, the problem may be that the character is too “OTN” (On the Nose i.e., obvious) without subtlety. To avoid these pitfalls, generate a list of possible outcomes for each of your character’s hurdles. Then, pick the most interesting one—but ensure that it matches the specific character.

Watching an actor swearing, crying, and jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa is likely not what you would do were you in that situation. It was far too much for the situation. It was an exaggerated reaction that seemed false because of its overemphasis. A second common character flaw is emoting too much, so that their reaction reads as insincere.

Would you jump up and down on a sofa while being interviewed by Oprah while discussing your love life? I believe that a reaction is working far too hard to sell a story.  Your characters should react in authentic and believable ways—the way that the average person IN THAT SITUATION would react..

An officer crying at a home invasion is simply wrong, but a mother crying upon learning sad news of her child’s death is believable. Characters must react authentically, not overreact, or become melodramatic.