/script : Interviews

Robert McKee : « Strong Characters = Strong Stories »

Transcript from a Chat with Robert McKee

On November 22, 1999, at pitchpoint.org (website closed in 2002), it happened for the first time ever: Robert McKee took part in an Internet chat session! During one hour Robert McKee was sitting in front of a computer in Geneva (Switzerland) answering high level questions from all over the world on the importance of the characters in a screenplay.

Chat MC (Geneva): Hi everyone!
For the first time ever on the lnternet, Robert McKee is available for direct conversation with you!
Robert McKee is a widely known and respected lecturer. He has written feature films, series for television (Filmworks, BBC, Reel Secrets, Channel Four), acted in New York and London, directed for the stage and lectured on writing to students around the world. Formerly on the Faculty of the USC School of Cinema and Television, he is also a project consultant to network television producers and major film studios.
The main theme of this chat is the relationship between the characters and the story. Therefore we invite you to focus your burning questions on the following topics:
– Structure and Character
– Past - Present - Future of Characters
– The Principles of Character Dimension
– Dramatising Characterisation
– Theories on Characters
– Relationship between Character and Dialogue
– Scriptwriting Softwares and Characterisation.

Chat MC (Geneva): The title of this chat is: Strong Characters = Strong Stories.
We organize this event in partnership with EBU – Prix Genève Europe.
Let's start: use your mouse and keyboard to chat to our guest...

Robert McKee (Geneva): Hi everybody!

Chat MC (Geneva): Let's go right to a question from the audience…

Oyvind Stålen (Norway): Hi, mr. McKee! Your book is probably the most comprehensive and most useful book on screenwriting I've read so far, and I've read a lot of them. However, there's one issue that I would have liked to learn more about. Every teacher of screenwriting that I meet tells me that I can only have one main character and one main plot in any one screenplay. Now, I'm not the kind of student that has to argue everything, but from time to time I come across ideas and stories that I believe would best be orginized in one of those ways. We have all seen such films, but I'm told that these are special cases, and therefore I shouldn't have them in mind when I try to learn this craft. Nobody seem to want to go into the issue. Can you give any advice on how to work with either several main characters or several main plots, and do you see any spesific problems that must be dealt with (other than conservative consultants) when writing such a film. 

Robert McKee (Geneva): Your teacher is wrong! There are many films with multiprotagonists. For example, Short Cuts, Parenthood, Dinner, Do the Right Thing, Eat Drink Man Woman, and many others. They have no central plots. Instead you will tell many stories, each with its own protagonists, each about the size of a subplot, and then you will either weave them together by crosscutting from one to another, or in some films such as The Red Violin or Twenty Bucks, you will put them in series, one after the other. The key is that every story is a variation on one master theme. For example, Parenthood. Each story dramatizes the impossibility of winning the "Game" of Parenthood, or Dinner dramatizes in all of its stories the difficulties men have communicating with women.

Oyvind Stålen (Norway): It seems to be a common understanding that a stupid (that is, one with an unusal low IQ) main character can't appeal to the audience. We don't sympathize with him, and we don't identify with him. Given that this common understanding is false, how can these problems be dealt with? How about using a stupid character for the role of the villain? 

Robert McKee (Geneva): It is rare that unintelligent characters are protagonists. However, two excellent films have been made about such characters: FORREST GUMP and BEING THERE. These films work because despite the low IQ of the protagonist, the writer has wonderfully expressed the humanity of the character, his compassion for others, his honesty, etc. and it is through these qualities that the audience is drawn. Study these films.

Francis R.M. Zvoma (Zimbabwe): Dear Mr. McKee, I'm a Zimbabwean - born, bred and developed in Zimbabwe. I've very limited experience in script writing. None of my scripts has been produced yet. I've two "teachers" to my credit in my short writing carrer, namely Dr. Lew Hunter (very recently) and writer/producer, Wolfgang Pheiffer (June - december 1998). From them I've learnt a lot, but it is never enough. I would love to learn and hear from you. What would be the best approach to CHARACTER according to your experience? How many subplots do you think one can handle safely in a story? Is it very necessary and possible to structure all your subplots without affecting or shadowing that of the main story? As a beginner, I'm always told "you've a good story, but your characters are weak" or "your dialogue is very fanctional" how do I adrress this to make my scripts better. Lastly I would like to know about the channels that I may pursue towards production of my scripts. 
I run an Resource Center (library) and I would love to have a collection of your publications "books and scripts" for my library. Tell me how to go about it. THANK YOU!

Robert McKee (Geneva): To answer your question about subplots. It is impossible to define how many subplots a story may have. It may in films such as THE FUGITIVE have no subplot and work wonderfully. It may as in CASABLANCA have as many as five subplots or more. What is important is the relationship of the subplots to the central plot. There are four possible uses or relationships:

  1. The subplot may contradict the controling idea of the central idea to create irony overall in the film
  2. The subplot may do a variation on the central plot controling idea
  3. The subplot may be used to introduce characters and prepare the audience for the inciting incident
  4. The subplot may complicate the life of the protagonist on the central plot. The subplot however must have some relationship either thematic like the first two uses or stuctural like the last two uses. It must not run alongside the central plot having no relationship at all.

Pat Roy: Is there actually scriptwriting software around that helps dramatize characterization? I thought that was the writer's domain, that software only helps organize and format what the writer comes up with.

Robert McKee (Geneva): You are right! No sotfware can in any realistic way help you create! The only software that works is between your ears. As you work and study, you will learn to ask yourself the necessary questions to spark your imagination and drop on your knwoledge and create fine characters. Indeed, the source of all great character writing is self knowledge. The more and more you penetrate the mysteries of your own humanity, the more and more you will come to understand the humanity of others. Out of this work on yourself will come the characters who live within you.

Kofi Mends (Ghana): Hi McKee! Is it advisable to have more than one main characters in a screenplay? What are some of the complications this might create? 

Robert McKee (Geneva): I don't understand what you mean by main characters. There are protagonists, supporting characters, perhaps antagonists. They are all "main" in some sense of the word. You could for example have duo protagonists, such as the film THELMA AND LOUISE or BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. You could have a number of protagonists all struggling together to achieve the same desire such as THE SEVEN SAMOURAI. On the other hand, you could write a multi-protagonist film such as SHORT CUTS. Or in the traditional way, you could have a single protagonist in conflict with a number of excellent characters such as HAMLET. The choice of how many protagonists either in a group or in separate stories weaving together, the choice of how many supporting characters to bring into the film, around the protagonist, the choice of how complex to make all of these various characters depends on the nature of the stories you wish to tell.

Stephanie Benger: Hi Mr. McKee, I attended your seminar and read your book both of which were excellent. But I'd really appreciate more detailed info about the structure of a Movie-of-the-Week. How many scenes? How many minutes per scene, and how many beats? How should I handle the pacing? Should the script format be any different for an MOW than for a feature? Thanks!

Robert McKee (Geneva): In American Television, the MOW is broken into 7 parts by 6 commercial breaks. However, these parts are not to be mistaken for Acts, although television writers often refer to them as Acts. When you subtract commercial time in credits from the 120 minutes of 2 hours MOW, you are left with approximately 94 minutes of story-telling time. Generally, this means you have time to create an excellent three Act story with subplots. The arrangement of the Act climaxes for both the central plot and subplots needs to create climatic moments just before each commercial. Generally, television scenes are brief, perhaps a minute and a half to 2 1/2 minutes, but they could be longer or shorter. It all depends of the material. Nor is there any particular rule of thumb as to how many beats are in a scene. The question you have asked suggests that you are trying to reduce writing to a mathematical formula. Simply write what would be a very effective 94 minute film. In working with the producer, you will be helped to arrange plot and subplots in the most effective way to cope with commercials.

G. Takach (Canada): Greetings, Mr. McKee, and thank you for your insightful book, Story, the best writing on writing I've ever read. My question: how do you reconcile the need to turn from positive to negative (or vice-versa) during a scene with the need not to interrupt the flow of the writing process? It's necessary, but it can bog a writer down bog-time! 

Robert McKee (Geneva): I am not sure what you mean by "the flow". Turning scene is the most natural flow of any good writer. By instinct, if not design, when a writer feels he or she is hitting the same note over and over, too many positive beats or negative beats in a row, we know it is time to cut those beats and turn the scene in the opposite direction. There is no contradiction between the dynamics of story-stelling and the natural flow of scenes.

Andreas, Frank, Stefan (Berlin): Good evening, Mr McKee. Do you think, that the aim of the central character (any character for that matter), what the character wants, is overrated in most of today´s screenwriting? I think overemphasizing the aim of the character in screenwriting handbooks often leads to clichéd mcguffins like the suitcase filled with money. What is more important in my opinion is what the character needs, no?

Robert McKee (Geneva): Desire is always the key to character. You seem confused between the words "want" and "need". Let me see if I can make it clear. In the complex character, there is both a conscious desire and a unconscious desire. Your sense of "want" seems to imply the conscious desire. Whereas "need" seems to refer to the unconscious desire. In the complex protagonist, these two desires contradict one another. The unconscious desire is, of course, primary. It is more powerfull and consistent. Whereas, the conscious desires or "wants" may change. For example, study the film MRS SOFFEL. The protagonist constantly changes her wants, what she seems to desire on the surface. But the audience comes to realize that deep within her unconscious desire for a transcendent romantic experience drives her and never changes. As to clichés, they are seen in film after film after film, not only in terms of "wants" but "needs" as well. The only way to win the war on clichés is research.

André (Belgique): It is always said that you have to love your characters, but if you have a very mean character in a story, is it not easier to hate him to write a better character? 

Robert McKee (Geneva): No. You must love all your characters. Especially the bad people. They are just people too, you know. And they deserve love like anybody else. For example, the antagonist of THE TERMINATOR. He is a splendid vilain. He couldn't be more mean and yet when you look carefully at the writing, you will see that all the brilliant scenes they gave this character were born out of the love of his particular kind of villainy. You must not mistake love for approval. You can love a great villain but not necessarily approve of his deeds.

Jean-Jacques (Paris): Do you think that you have to put autobiographical stuff in characters to built strong characters? 

Robert McKee (Geneva): All writing is autobiographical, even if you are writing science-fiction or historical drama or any other genres. Every choice you make, as to genres, character, events, dialogues, actions, are all reflexions of your humanity. If you take the pain to really understand your character and their lives, you will make choices no one else will make and express a vision no one else has, exposing who you are and everything you do. It is not possible to do otherwise. Everything we create expresses our humanity or lack of it.

G. Takach (Canada): (Second question, but perhaps more germane to the list than my first). How active does an effective protagonist have to be? And if their arc is from passive to active, how late in the story can you make the shift concrete? 

Robert McKee (Geneva): The answer to your question is relative to the material. There are no hard and fast answers to such questions. For example in the film ORDINARY PEOPLE, the father is a very quiet seemingly passive man who does not take a strong action until the crisis and climax of the film. Yet, he has a very dynamic inner life as he struggles to understand the problem in his family. On the other hand, in the film NORTH BY NORTHWEST Cary Grant is a passive man in the very begining of the film but becomes active quickly. So who can say. The one point however to always bear in mind is that when your protagonist is seemingly passive, the inner life must be active. The genuinely passive character, passive both within and without, is a bore.

Andreas Müller (Hamburg): In one of my script, the main antagonist could also be the guardian (tutor), is that possible ?

Robert McKee (Geneva): I would love to answer your question, but it is too abstract. I would have to know more about the story in order to answer it.

Homayoun Karimpour (Paris): After long theoretical research and a good dose of practice, when one has the impression of really knowing the secrets of the profession, how to make to sell his services of Script Consultant? How much is the price for the deepened analysis of a feature film script. I must remind you that I was born in Afghanistan... (sorry for my English, i speak french !)

Robert McKee (Geneva): In Hollywood, script consultants starve.

G Takach (Canada): No question, this time, just a hearty thank you to the kind visionaries at Pitchpoint for bringing us face to face (computer-to-computer?) with the master, and to Mr. McKee himself for his great wisdom and undimmed humanity. Best wishes to you all! 
Robert McKee (Geneva): :-)

Anthony King: Treatments verses Full Scripts...
Dear Mr. McKee, I am working at the moment as a freelance screenwriter/playwrite. I've had a few works produced (short films and one act plays), but I'm now wanting to make the jump from short form to something more commercially appealing. I have drafted two or three treatments for "longer" stories, but now I'm wondering whether the smartest thing to do is to go on to produce the full script in each case, or should I try to find someone (or company) who believes in one of my ideas enough to provide me with incentive (and perhaps finances) to carry on producing the full script. I do not have an agent to work this through with me, so I would appreciate your advice. Thank you!

Robert McKee (Geneva): In Hollywood, it is always better to write the script completely before you show it to anyone. If you are hired based on an idea, you will make one tenth of the money you will make when you sell a finished screenplay. My advice is to do whatever you have to do to feed yourself while you work to create a complete excellent screenplay.

Robert McKee (Geneva): It's now 8 o'clock in Geneva and I have to go back to work. It has been a pleasure talking with you and I hope we can do it again in the future. Good luck to all of you.

Chat MC (Geneva): Thank you, Mr. McKee. We really enjoyed having you with us!
Thanks everyone!

Copyright © FOCAL. All rights reserved.

We would like to thank Jacqueline Surchat (who typed the whole chat) and Lynne Polak, Anna Vasova and Françoise Mayor for their support.

Proposed by FOCAL and The Master School Drehbuch, Pitchpoint.org (closed in July 2002) was a website which combined script development and marketing. It was a market-place for materials which helped young authors and producers in the publication and acquisition of film, television and multimedia material. Pitchpoint.org was the meeting point for authors and producers in search of partners in Europe and around the world.

The book: "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting" by Robert McKee, Harper Collins, 1997.


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