There’s a concept in law called “The Reasonable Man”. The idea is that sometimes a judge has to compare your behavior to what a regular person might be expected to do. For instance, when faced with a stranger choking on a bus, would a reasonable person administer the Heimlich maneuver? (note: the stranger is on the bus, choking. They’re not choking because they tried to swallow a bus.)
In perhaps the only example where lessons from law school coincide with those learned in the trenches of Screenwriting U, we can learn much from Mr. Reasonable. In law, the more your behavior resembles Mr. R. the better. But in a movie, the more your protagonist resembles the Reasonable Man, the less chance you’re ever going to win that Daytime Emmy.
Smart Heroes are Boring Heroes
Why? Because we don’t want our heroes to behave like we would. The more they’re willing to do some fucked up shit, the more we want to watch them. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t need movies — we’d all just pay $13.50 to watch the guy ahead of us agonize over whether or not that Baconator is really worth skipping out on his 80s.
Indiana Jones is not a reasonable man. Lisbeth Salander is not a reasonable man. Neither is Ripley, Max Fischer, or Ree (from Winter’s Bone, the movie that inspired this post).
In almost every case, great protagonists come face to face with a whole bunch of difficult choices (especially the big ones at the ends of Act 1, 2 and 3)… and they almost always make the stupid, but brave, choice.
Every Introduction to Screenwriting class or Syd Field book says that your story needs to build momentum up to the act climaxes, where you then have the protagonist make a decision. But what they don’t necessarily tell you, is that your job as a writer is to make your protagonist take the spectacularly foolhardy path every time.
Take Frodo. He had it pretty good. He happily wiled away the days smoking, eating and combing the hair on his feet. But he also had this ring. A ring that a guy with the personality of Dick Cheney and the global reach of Cirque du Soleil really wanted. A Reasonable Hobbit would have ditched that ring, dropping it in a well or feeding it to a passing shark. But not our Frodo. He cheerfully accepted almost sure death to march across the scorched hellscape of Texas in an impossible quest to destroy it forever. And remember, this guy’s tiny.
And that’s probably a big part of why Frodo is such a compelling character, despite his near constant belly-aching. And that’s probably a big part of why the story of Lord of the Rings has provided such compelling reading for millions of virgins over the years, and why the trilogy of movies has made so much bank.
I always used to have problems with act climaxes. Yes, I knew a decision had to be made by the protagonist. And that decision would have to send the action careening off in a new and unexpected direction. But what it took this long to realize is that the decision they make should be terrible. And that new and unexpected direction should lead the protagonist right up Sauron’s proverbial asshole.