Given the upcoming slew of holiday dramas, romantic comedies, and more, I’ve had a lot of thoughts on an issue facing the majority of them: the lack of meaningful drama. Granted, the purpose of these romcoms is to not push the edge and to make some guaranteed cash around the holiday season, especially in North America where holiday struggles are a nearly universal experience for people. So, theme perhaps made more tangential, what is it that makes a good drama?
In case you’re wondering, this is not the only example, but it’s the one I’d like to cite as the inspiration for these musings because of its central problem that immediately stood out to me: everybody seems to be so acutely… normal and well-adjusted. Perhaps there will be some twist to that in the final presentation, but the way this trailer runs, every character seems to have completely regular character flaws, or slots very well into established film tropes matching their purpose. Despite there being a huge, extremely relatable core problem for our protagonist and her girlfriend, it feels almost trivial to see. While I understand that the point of this film is to be a romantic comedy, its story is completely intertwined with the makings of a drama from its very outset, yet it feels completely low-stakes. I wish to reserve any particular critical review of it until I am able to watch it myself, as I’d love to be proven wrong, but I admit I am skeptical- yet it also made me wonder, what is it that makes a compelling drama?
The most particular element I can think of are extreme character flaws. No, a protagonist does not need to be unlikable or even unreasonable, but in order to create a sense of drama, there needs to be some manner of deficiency, and one that is interruptive of daily life. This is doubly important to a story that also incorporates mystery into it, as it naturally instills a sense of doubt into the viewer’s mind as to the motives of the characters in motion. A traditional “detective” character role in such a film can exist as a sort of counterbalance (though I don’t prefer a character archetype of extreme “purity” in storytelling, myself), but character flaws drive virtually any sense of drama in cinematic storytelling. Naturally, the most difficult balancing act then becomes how to create character flaws that are within believable human norms.
Let’s take, for example, a film I rewatched recently and study its two main characters: Gone Girl by David Fincher. Nick Dunne initially presents as an everyday guy, another one of the boys, perhaps a bit slobbish, but well-meaning, stressed, and innocent. Amy Dunne is portrayed as the completely pure and also innocent woman, and as events unravel, we begin to see the truer nature of both characters, both contrasting each other heavily, and both paying a price for that discrepancy. These character flaws make up the entirety of the plot, and end up becoming the source of the subversion as those flaws get revealed to the audience as the supporting cast also discovers them. The central mystery becomes a sort of legal drama and psychological thriller in one go, to the explicit purpose that Tanner Bolt declares to Nick that the case will be determined by how much people like him. And, in fact, Nick actually fails in that purpose, unable to overcome his own deficiencies by making a gamble on daring Amy to return. (Okay, I’ll stop talking about this example since I’ll end up dissecting it entirely.)
Point being, if your cast are well-adjusted people, it removes the stakes from any potential character drama you’re attempting to have. Without any stakes, what investment are you planning to have form your audience? Would I’m Thinking Of Ending Things have been a compelling narrative if the central character wasn’t loaded with insecurities, with intense self-doubt and hatred, wishing they had some form of potential realized? Perhaps there is simply a market that seeks out a sort of “realistic comfort movie” to watch during the holidays that provides extremely low stress, but I don’t believe they create compelling narratives that are interesting to watch.
Naturally, the other end of this is having character exemplify only flaws throughout a presentation, making them entirely unlikable and not able to have an audience follow them. Or, their flaws are predictable or presented out of order. You want these flaws to either be developed, become apparent, or become more understandable as the audience develops alongside the character. When these variables are out of sync, the audience can’t explore alongside them. Using an example from David Fincher was a deliberate choice, as his character archetypes utilize most of what I’ve already discussed: they all have intrinsic character flaws that get fleshed out by both the presentation and the story. Nick Dunne is a cheater and liar, Robert Graysmith is so obsessed with the Zodiac that he abandons his family to pursue the answers, and so on. Their flaws are developed in tandem with the investment of the audience, and thus they are believable and, mostly, extraordinarily interesting characters to follow.
Although my initial tone might have been deriding what’s likely a low-impact holiday movie, that’s not the point of my musing here. It simply reminded me of an element that did not make itself immediately apparent from its trailer. Perhaps that is what led me to try to analyze components that felt as though they were necessary, but missing from what I saw.
I only explored one element of what makes good drama- there are tons of other variables that perhaps I will explore further later.