If there’s one lesson I need tattooed onto my fucking face, it’s FIND THE IRONY.
I know this, you probably do too. It’s so fucking obvious and makes the whole writing process so much easier and more meaningful … and yet, I forget. Every fucking time.
The irony I’m talking about is the one inherent in the premise. The ironic element which links the protagonist to the story. The thing which makes the protagonist the perfect and only choice of character to tell this particular story.
A recent example which springs to mind (recent to me watching it, not to it being produced) would be Pitch Perfect. If you haven’t seen the film, you really should. I loved it. Everything about it. It’s funny, well constructed and the music’s fantastic.
If you haven’t seen it, you may consider the rest of this post to be chock-full-o-spoilers … but it’s not really the sort of film you can spoil, so it probably doesn’t matter.
SPOILER ALERT ANYWAY
So, partly for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it but mostly just for the sake of discussion, Pitch Perfect is about rival a cappella singers at an American university. To me, it’s one of those films like Dodgeball or Strictly Ballroom where you take an inherently silly competition and have everyone take it really, really seriously. In a funny way.
The irony in Pitch Perfect comes, as it should, from the protagonist – Beca.
She’s a loner, someone who doesn’t really interact (or harmonise) with others, who finds herself joining a competitive a cappella club for (slightly) spurious reasons. Basically, in order to be left alone to pursue her loner musical interests, she has to work intimately with a close-knit group.
If she was a loner who had to live as a hermit … it just wouldn’t be the same. The beginning and end of that story, the character arc doesn’t leap out at you because “a person gets everything they want without trying” isn’t really a sound basis for a story.
A loner who has to join something, especially something which relies heavily on working so closely with others … a loner who can only achieve her goal by not being a loner … it’s all there.
You have the start point for Beca’s character (loner) and the end (joiner-in-er). Done badly, the film would start and end like that with the main character turning completely around to be someone else.
Pitch Perfect is better than that. Beca keeps her individuality whilst working within the group. She learns how to use her loner, anti-harmonic tendencies within the crowd. As do the rest of the Barden Bellas. She learns how to fit in without forgetting how to stand out … and that’s great.
What’s also great is she realises she was pursuing the wrong goal. Or at least, she can achieve her goal in a completely different way to the one she expected. An ironic way, for her.
The rest of the characters spring from this central irony. You could argue for Aubrey or Bumper as the antagonist – both represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Aubrey wants everyone to fit in and be exactly the same, following the same path … which just isn’t going to work. The more she pushes the Bellas to conform, the worse they do.
Bumper, on the other hand, is almost sociopathic in his pursuit of his own goals, screwing over his team mates for personal gain.
Aubrey is what Beca is scared of becoming if she fits in. Bumper is what she could become if she doesn’t. The solution is the middle way. The ironic way.
The annoying thing about this kind of irony is it’s so fucking obvious … yet so easy to forget. Like I say, I need it tattooed on my face so I don’t forget, because I do … all the fucking time.
If you’re writing a story about a guy who becomes a hermit then the protagonist should either be a sociable soul who can’t be on his own; or a loner who took the job to get away from people only to find the hermitage is infested with squatters or has a lot of annoying neighbours … or something.
Something better, preferably.
But that’s the point I need to remember – find the irony in the premise. Find the worst possible character to star in the story and then use them as the branching out point for everyone else. Make the antagonist either the opposite or the same but further down the road. All the other characters should reflect this irony in some way.
Then make sure it’s all very subtle and hidden in the subtext.
Now all I need to remember is to tattoo it backwards so I can actually read it in the mirror.