By Mark Alpert
Novelists can learn from filmmakers, and vice-versa. For today’s lesson, I’d like to direct your attention to a short film written by Rotem Weiner (see photo above), an actress I met last month at the 2017 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival in New York City.
For the past few years I’ve served as an emcee and panel moderator for this festival, which showcases a wide variety of short, provocative films. The event is organized by video impresario Dan Fine, who receives hundreds of submissions every year from filmmakers around the world. Dan and his team of curators view all the submitted videos and select the best ones for screening at the three-day festival. Many of the works are experimental and abstract — they’re more like artworks than traditional movies — but some are short narrative films that tell quirky stories. A good example of the latter is Rotem Weiner’s film, “Bench,” which was selected for this year’s festival and screened at the Downtown Community Television Center on Lafayette Street.
Born and raised in Israel, Weiner came to the U.S. to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is famous for teaching and promoting the techniques of method acting. In “Bench,” she plays the role of Emma, an eager young woman trying to find a job in New York City. The film is nineteen minutes long, but I want to focus on just the first three minutes, which show Emma waking up in her apartment and preparing for a job interview. This is really just the introduction to the film; there’s no dialogue during this sequence except for a few curses muttered by Emma while she brushes her teeth and puts on her makeup, and upbeat guitar music plays in the background. But the brief sequence does an excellent job of introducing the character of Emma and making her likable. This is also the primary task of the opening pages of any novel, and as with any other task, there are some basic rules for doing it right. So let’s analyze how Rotem Weiner creates a likable character. (You can view the video here.)
A likable character has to want something very badly. In the introduction to “Bench,” the main things that come across are Emma’s hurry and worry. We see her running late, rushing through her morning rituals, and practicing a businesslike greeting in her bathroom mirror. By the end of the three minutes, it becomes obvious that she’s rushing off to a job interview, but before we even realize what her goal is, we’re already rooting for. That’s because the specific goal doesn’t matter; what makes the character likable is the strength and fervor of her desire. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby wants Daisy; in Moby Dick, Ahab wants to kill the eponymous white whale; in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister; in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sit on the Iron Throne. Some of these desires may be obsessive or irrational, and the objects of the desires may not even be worth all the fuss, but as long as the characters yearn desperately for their goals, readers will yearn along with them. It’s a weird human instinct that probably got incorporated into our DNA during the Paleolithic Era, when a crucial trait for survival was the ability to sense when our fellow hominids had discovered a new source of food; an ape-man who took a lively interest in his comrades’ quests for sustenance could share in the rewards by following his more adventurous companions to the newly discovered berry patches or zebra carcasses. We have evolved to be eager followers of our comrades’ passions.
She has to face obstacles. It wouldn’t be much of a story if the main character gets what she wants right away. And if she achieves her goals too easily, we might even start to resent her. The obstacles make the quest more interesting and involving; when they arise, the reader shares the frustration and disappointment that the character is feeling, thus strengthening the sympathetic bond between them. In “Bench,” Emma’s first obstacle is that she doesn’t have enough time to get ready for her interview, and then her problems multiply: she sticks herself in the eye with her makeup applicator, there’s no coffee left in her kitchen, and when she runs to the neighborhood coffee shop to pick up an iced latte (or whatever), someone bumps into her and spills the stuff all over her shirt. (This last disaster has become a bit of a cliché — didn’t it also happen to Emma Stone’s character in La La Land?) The overall effect is to create a likable character through the viewer’s involvement in her struggles. We know nothing so far about her background or political beliefs or moral qualities, and yet we automatically like her.
She has to overcome those obstacles through her unique skills, resourcefulness, and bravery. The character’s attitude toward her problems is also important. If all she does is complain about her troubles, then the reader won’t want to spend any time with her. If the obstacles subside because of mere luck or assistance from other people, then the reader won’t have any reason to admire her. But if she cleverly overcomes the challenges, ideally in a way that the reader would’ve never thought of, then the admiration for the character will be enthusiastic. We see some of these qualities in Emma in the latter part of “Bench,” when she befriends a homeless man in a park next to her office building. (Yes, she gets the job!) In The Hunger Games, we admire Katniss’s archery skills and impertinence; in Game of Thrones, we admire Dany’s fierce charisma and determination (not to mention the way she rides those dragons). If I may return for a moment to my “hungry ape-man” metaphor: Who would you rather follow on a dangerous hunt across the African savannah? A hapless, hopeless hominid headed for extinction, or a big-brained, tool-using Darwinian winner?
Her challenges have to be relatable. In “Bench,” the viewer has extra sympathy for Emma’s dilemmas because they’re familiar. At one time or another, we’ve all worried about being late to a job interview. And most of us have also experienced that mad “chicken-without-a-head” feeling that overcomes you when you’re running late and making a mess of things because you can’t think straight. But a good writer can also make extraordinary problems relatable by connecting them to more mundane troubles. For example, the young hero of the science-fiction novel Ender’s Game faces an unprecedented galaxy-class challenge: he has to save human civilization from destruction by learning how to vanquish the space fleets of an insectoid alien species known as the “buggers.” His training, though, takes place at a space-station facility that feels a lot like a high school, albeit one with cutthroat competition among the students and a lot of manipulative, tough-love teachers. Ender has to face down violent bullies and turn a group of nerds and losers into a championship-winning team. Sounds familiar, right?
I’d like to wrap up the discussion by addressing an issue that applies just to female characters. Recently, my editor at St. Martin’s Press noticed something odd in my fiction, specifically an early draft of my next novel. The book’s heroine, in a moment of tension, starts “fidgeting.” Although there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear or anxiety, this particular expression of the emotion seemed a little unbecoming. After my editor pointed it out, I asked myself: Would I ever write that a male hero was “fidgeting”? Wouldn’t this physical action make him seem less heroic, less competent, less deserving of admiration? And if it was uncool for a male hero to fidget, why was it okay for a female to do it?
I was being sexist. It doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female — heroes don’t fidget. So I changed the wording in the next draft. (The novel will be published about a year from now. Working title: SUPERHUMAN.)