Can “The People” Be a Character?

August 11, 2009

The story thread I mentioned in my last post represents the journey of the nation’s citizens as whole, tracking as a singular entity the attitudes and principles of the majority. In that sense, “The People” becomes a kind of super-character in the plotline: a collective that functions as one. 

But how can that be when the general rule–a good one–when creating a screenplay is to build the story around two individuals: a primary antagonist and protagonist?

There are many exceptions to that general rule, but they are exceptions nonetheless. Even if a movie has a cast of thousands, you find in most commercially successful movies a single individual with whom we identify (the hero). And that hero, while battling perhaps a legion of obstacles or people, fights primarily against the will of one person (the villain).  I could do a post about this subject, but this isn’t it. For now, I’m just acknowledging that there is a rule.

And I’m following that rule in the primary plotline; I have a single protagonist–Joe Cameron–who battles against the will of a singularly determined antagonist. But among the other evolving characters in this story–characters representing the society’s individuals and their unique choices–there is this influential force that I need to consider and contend with: the will of the people. As I work on the story, representing the collective mind of the masses as a character is helpful to me and, I contend, is a legitimate dramaturgical construct.

In fact, representing the masses as an entity may even be a necessary dramaturgical construct if a story (such as this one) presents or proposes a major societal course change enacted by its citizens.

Four legs good, two legs bad

Even more so, if the story’s backdrop or “universe” is a country that is either socialist or leaning strongly in that direction, the writer may need to consider the masses as a singular influence, just as any character. Why? The nature of socialism. It’s a style of government in which the rights of the individual are subjugated to the rights of the state–to the rights of the masses (as opposed to free market capitalism, which emphasizes the individual). In a country where “state owned” is an increasingly common thing, the individuals are increasingly required to conform to the state’s definition of what to think or do.

Collective inaction as status quo

From the first act, I establish that we are in a country that, while not yet socialist, is moving further down that path, experiencing fewer individual rights, and an increasingly centralized government. The citizens of this country are generally unhappy about their changing state, but they are doing little to prevent it, even as they are witnessing the negative effects of the rapidly growing bureaucracy: increasing taxation, currency devaluation, rising unemployment, more government control, and the erosion of personal rights. They accept the persuasive political rhetoric of its leaders as truth, in spite of contradictory evidence.

Isn’t there someone . . . ?

Into this oppressive and alarming backdrop,  enter our protagonist, Joe Cameron. He’s watched for years the gradual decline of his beloved  island nation. Within the limits of his power as a police officer, he’s tried to not only uphold the law but to influence the thinking of those around him.

Now, as the country continues to deteriorate, he is faced with a dilemma … and possibly an opportunity.

  • The dilemma: Joe is torn between his desire to serve his country with integrity and the realization that justice cannot be attained by operating within the rules of a corrupt and broken system.
  • The opportunity: Later in the story, due to some highly publicized police actions, Joe becomes a nationally recognized figure, which opens a door for him to become influential on a mass scale.

But can some “one” be enough?

Here’s the rub; The collective inaction of “The People” in any society can make the most noble of heroes impotent. Joe’s opportunity to influence the national government requires an unprecedented degree of mass motivation. Unless he can generate a majority action–one that requires personal risk and possibly self-sacrifice–in a people who are historically stuck in an inertia tendency quagmire, Joe can achieve nothing.

The most powerful character . . .

So, while we have the possibility of unique actions and reactions to story events by any individual character within the society, we also represent the majority will of the society as this incredibly powerful character. Whether they collectively give up or collectively revolt or collectively cower or collectively vote or collectively refuse to vote, the heroism or eloquence of an individual will have little effect on the country’s direction, unless–and this is big–unless they can influence the will of the masses.

Can one person really make a difference?

I will play on that possibility in the primary storyline; that one person can make a difference, but only if they act as a catalyst.

In the story, as in real life, I contend that the most eloquent or determined individual is incapable of being a hero in the social development of a nation unless they are also influential. Unless their torch is picked up and carried by the masses, the social hero is ultimately and utterly powerless.