Screenwriters can fall into a jealous love with their protagonist, wanting their beau’s life to be as simple and worry-free as possible, leaping in to push aside obstacles and tribulations.
And like many a relationship, the rest of the world doesn’t see things through gooey eyes and instead are sickened, or bored by the company of turgid, lacklustre secondary characters and pedestrian stories.
So it is to Stanley Kubrick I give thanks for Dr Strangelove and showing that proper love for a protagonist is to surround them with the worst kind of people – people who don’t want to do as their told, or what you want, but what they want.
Great Kubrick script
I can’t entirely thank Kubrick for this, it started when a very kind BBC producer gave me some feedback (but alas not a job) on a script I was working on, saying that while she liked the protagonist she felt that he was drunk on plot power while the others were there to prop him up. Another writing failure. Or so I thought.
The story had a good start, but it needs more, so I started reading more books, focusing both on sequences and character goals within those (both of books I highly recommend). They showed me what to do, but writing is about showing, not telling. Luckily I decided to watch the apocalyptic comedy and the messages hit home.
Let’s look first at the first principle: that all leading characters, not just the protagonist, has a goal in relation to the main goal and main question. Now, this also assumes that the main goal has a time limit and by the third act both the stakes and time limit are raised before answering the question, leading to a new goal.
The key question here is “will America bomb Russia?” and the US nuclear payload is personified in this case by the crew of the B-52, The Leper Colony, under the command of Major TJ ‘King’ Kong. Then the stakes are raised – even from nuclear war – to total global annihilation and the time limit quickens, before the first key question is answered and a new one arises, “will the men in the War Room survive to start a new society?”
Individually, the goals are:
- General Jack D Ripper wants to make the world a better place by wiping out the Communists so he orders his B-52s to attack Russia.
- Group Captain Mandrake wants to stop him, either by reasoning with the general or getting the recall code from him.
- Major Kong wants to do his duty and obey his orders to bomb his primary target in Russia and will do everything in his power to do this, even if it means it’s a one-way mission. Unlike the rest of the bomber crew, he seems to relish the opportunity.
- President Muffley wants to stop the bombing at any price, so he contacts the Russians.
- General Tugidson who also wants to stop the bombing, but not at any price, so opposes calling the Russians and tries to either figure out an American way, or the best way to deal with the situation if the US alone can’t stop the bombing.
Even the minor characters have goals:
- Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski wants to do his duty to his country, which is spy on the US, to the extreme that he does this in the middle of negotiations.
- Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, just wants him back in bed so keeps interrupting.
So how do these character goals drive story sequences, each with their own reversals?
- General Ripper and Gp Capt Mandrake goes from the orders despatch, to Mandrake discovering the truth, to risking being shot by Ripper and the invading US forces, to Ripper’s suicide. Even then, once Mandrake gets the code he can’t call the White House and comes close to being arrested by the American forces. But in the end he achieves his goal – he gets the code to recall the bombers. The problem is, Ripper also hits his goal of nuking Russia.
- The President has problems getting through to the Russian premier, and when he does get hold of him, he may not be able to convince him to help. He achieves his goal of getting the Russians to believe him. Gen Turgidson, on the other hand, keeps trying to convince the President of the folly of Russian help, but ultimately fails, despite his demonstration of how Maj Kong with his B-52 can ‘barrel that baby in so low’.
- Maj Kong wants to do his duty. When it looks like they’ll be shot down, they scrape through, when it looks like they’ll be recalled, they can’t, when the crew argue against bombing, Kong’s views prevail. The most famous reversal is saved to the end – the bombs won’t drop. But Maj Kong finds a way.
We’ll meet again
Can you imagine if the story was just about one character, say Maj Kong or the President? I can do so, mainly because I know now what a protagonist-centred script is like.
The great lesson of Dr Strangelove, other that the one about pointlessness of nuclear posturing, is that multiple character goals add to, not diminish the main story, as long as their goals are relevant to the plot.
I suppose it helps that there is no real lead character in Dr Strangelove, thought Peter Sellers is clearly the main actor. By being ensemble it forced Kubrick to take the book from sober to satire, and give each of these characters a goal and part to play.
So watch the film and by the end you may even leap up and declare “Mein Fuhrer, I can write!”