Thursday, August 15, 2013

Character Development Don'ts, Courtesy of Burt Wonderstone

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Spoiler note: There are lots of them below, so beware.

So, okay. I like Steve Carell. A lot. But when he does movies like Burt Wonderstone, it leaves me scratching my head. Steve Carell is way too smart for this. At least I hope he is. (Well, I guess there was Evan Almighty. And Despicable Me 2. And then he's doing Anchorman 2 this summer. Um.)

When I saw Burt Wonderstone, I finally understood the perils of poor character development--the consequences that occur when the protagonist doesn't develop along with the plot, and in Burt's case, sometimes regresses. It reminded me of some good advice I'd gotten recently at a conference--to examine my characters at each important plot point to see how they've developed with the story.

I'll be showing you Burt at various stages, using Janice Hardy's plot points in my example: Opening scene - Inciting event - Act one crisis - Act two revelation - Midpoint reversal - Act three disaster - Climax -Wrap up

Opening Scene

This part is pretty endearing, and probably my favorite part of the movie. It starts out in 1982, when Burt is growing up. He's bullied, and latch-key kid. He even has to make his own birthday cake when his mom has to stay late at work. His birthday present is a magic set from the great Rance Holloway--and here his love of magic begins. He brings the kit to school and develops a friendship with his future magic partner and friend, Anton Marvelton. So far, so good.

Inciting Event

I wasn't really clear when this occurred, if it actually did--and this is why starting in flashback isn't always a good idea. They had to flash forward through Burt and Anton's "big break" at Bally's in Las Vegas, and the hiring of a new assistant named Nicole. And then it flashed forward yet another ten years to show their act growing stale. A lot of exposition, here.

Act One Crisis

Burt and Anton take a back seat to a David Blaine-like street magician named Steve Gray, and Doug, the owner of Bally's, kicks them to the curb after an unsuccessful stunt. Anton quits and goes abroad to Cambodia, and Burt tries to do the two-man act by himself--without changing a single thing. This Burt is completely different from his 11-year-old counterpart. It seems doing magic all these years has regressed him into an 8-year-old. He refuses to change his act, even though the plot elements insist he should.

Act Two Revelation

This never happened. We spend the next 30 or so minutes seeing Burt waffling, refusing to budge, ignoring others who try to help him--until he ends up bankrupt. I know it's customary for some characters to be stubborn, but here, he's just clueless. When Nicole offers to put him up for the night, he leaves his dinner dishes outside the front door because he's so used to room service. What happened to the self-sufficient kid who baked his own cake in the oven?

Midpoint Reversal

When Burt ends up performing magic in a retirement home, he meets his idol, Rance Holloway--who started his love of magic in the first place. At last, the movie becomes watchable again. Burt checks his stupidity and ego at the door, and decides to team up with Rance to do a magic show for Doug's kid's birthday party. He's now more humble, and more willing to try new things in his act. But it took meeting his idol to shake him out of his stupor.

Act Three Disaster

This never really happened either, unless you count Burt's humiliation at the kid's birthday party, when Steve Gray takes over his show. But this makes Steve look worse than Burt. At the party, Burt finds out about a competition for the upcoming main act at Doug's new hotel (redundantly called "Doug"), and decides to enter. Everything is on the up and up. Anton returns, and he and Burt collaborate on the one act they couldn't do as kids--the disappearing audience.


This is still the same Burt we saw at the midpoint reversal, so not much growth has happened since. The character who develops the most here is Rance--who decides to take part in a public magic show for the first time in years. Burt flawlessly executes his disappearing audience trick by using a drug Anton discovered in Cambodia to make everyone pass out. There's no suspense here at all--Steve Gray takes himself out of the running early on by drilling a hole into his head.

Wrap Up

This is just a montage of Burt, Anton, and Nicole shuffling around audience bodies to the point of breaking them to demonstrate the back-end of their disappearing audience trick. No further growth here, either.

So there you have it. And hopefully Steve Carell will stop accepting these crappy scripts.

Now it's your turn--take a snapshot of your character at each plot development and see if they're different or not. 

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