Sunday, May 30, 2010

Playing Devil's Advocate

"The novelist, afraid his ideas may be foolish, slyly puts them in the mouth of some other fool and reserves the right to disavow them." - Diane Johnson, NY Times Book Review, 1979.

I realised many years ago, when someone suggested that writers 'play God' with their characters, that's it's actually nothing like that. As screenwriters, certainly, we play Devil's Advocate, which is far more mischievous.

We think of the worst things we can do to a character and then we turn the screw and watch them wriggle free, in as interesting and entertaining a way as possible all through Act Two. Thus, through adversity, overcoming obstacles and poor choices, and chained to a bad mistake from way back (or a poor decision/ character flaw/ fear about which they are in denial etc), they develop their characters and we get catharsis when they finally succeed.

It reminds me of a friend's friend who went into a church in New York, flung his arms in the air and shouted, "I've grown enough". He was tired of being told that every bad experience was a chance to 'grow.' Battered and bruised by life, he had decided he was certainly tall enough for some good things to start happening in his life. Now, his life, in the hands of a kind screenwriter, deserved a happy ending.

And that's why people love happy endings in films, or endings where everything is resolved. It's completion, one of the four psychological reasons people go to films. We never get to 'complete' our lives; we're dead by then, but in films we can enjoy the illusion.

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