I see a lot of scripts these days where the writer initially depicts the main character as kind of a selfish jerk. This is on purpose, because they want to “arc” them to a better, nicer person in the end. I get this desire, as many of the best movies feature powerful character growth.
However, as I’ve written about before, there’s a danger with the “starts a jerk” approach: that the audience will so dislike the main character that they won’t want to follow them at all. We normally need the “hero” to be a likable, decent, good person who “saves the cat” (as Blake Snyder would say in his book by that name) and puts others ahead of themselves.
On the fairly rare occasion where a main character is not personally likable, this is usually offset by some combination of huge heroism on their part (as on House, M.D.) and constant life and death stakes (as in Scarface) — where they face challenges so huge and primal, as an underdog, that we can’t help but relate, and overlook their unlikability.
So what if you don’t have that heroism, or those constant massive challenges and stakes, right out of the gate? Does that mean the main character can’t be something of a jerk at the beginning? Aren’t there some successful comedies and lighter dramas where they are?
Yes, there are a few. And they generally fall into one very specific type of story, which Save the Cat calls the “Out of the Bottle” genre. (I love the book’s ten genres, and this is one in a series of posts focusing on them.) In an “Out of the Bottle” movie, some magical situation tests, challenges and rocks the world of the main character, and they spend the bulk of the movie being punished by it. Because of the incredibly difficult (often comedic) gauntlet they face while dealing with this, they are forced to grow. For example:
- Liar Liar
- A Christmas Carol/Scrooged
- Groundhog Day
- What Women Want
- The Family Man
In these movies, the whole point is to “challenge and transform a jerk,” and it happens through something magical and fantastical — like, in Liar Liar, where a wish from a child causes his lawyer father to be unable to lie.
Note that even in this movie, however, the main character is not completely selfish, in the opening pages. When he does show up to be with his kid, he clearly loves him and engages with him in a sympathetic, fatherly way. The problem is he’s unreliable, often doesn’t show up, and in his work life, tells a lot of lies. If he wasn’t even a good father who loves his kid, it might have been too much for the audience. It might’ve been too hard for them to care. And we writers really need them to care — to connect with the main character in some way. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.
So we can start our movie with a “jerk” main character, if we’re about to spend ninety minutes essentially beating the crap out of them — as Liar Liar does — through some challenging magical situation that they can’t escape from. The focus really needs to be on “changing the jerk” as the entire point of the movie. If their change is just the internal character arc in a story that is about some other problem/goal, and they’re not specifically pressured and punished in this sort of way, I think it’s very hard to get an audience to engage and care about them — because of their initial unlikability.
The “Out of the Bottle” genre is not limited to movies about jerks who need to be punished and change. There are plenty of other variations, where completely lovable characters experience some magical thing which challenges them — such as Field of Dreams, Big and The Nutty Professor. But in the end, the point of the story is the same — they grow in some clear way, into a better, happier version of themselves.
The magical/fantastical event generally happens at the Catalyst, mid-way through the first act, after a “wish” by themselves or another character, which comes true. After this, in the “Debate” section, the main character tries to test the magic, tries to figure it out, takes initial steps in response to it which lead to complications, and often tries to reverse it or minimize it. But this mostly fails. None of these things returns life to normal.
So at the Break into Act Two, they realize this magic is here to stay, for now. They’re going to have to tough it out and deal with it. There’s no easy escape or return to normalcy. They are stuck in an “upside down world.” And usually there is something with very high stakes going on in their life (often in their career) that they have to accomplish, so this magic might be coming at the worst possible time. (Though really, it comes at the perfect time, in that it ultimately causes the main character to grow.)
The magic typically punishes the main character throughout the second act, leading to an “all is lost” moment at its end. Then in the third act, there is finally an opportunity to reverse the magic, and to return to a normal (but better) life. There’s a challenge involved here, a final battle of sorts, but in the end, the magic usually ends, and the main character has learned something and grown in some way.
“Out of the Bottle” movies tend to be comedies or inspirational dramas. If your idea for a movie with magic or supernatural elements has life-and-death stakes, action, horror or thriller elements, it’s probably better suited to “Monster in the House,” “Golden Fleece,” “Whydunit” or “Superhero.” But if it doesn’t, and these “Out of the Bottle” elements sound like what you’re going for, then I would suggest trying to follow these basic principles.
The five “subgenres” detailed in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies gives us more of a feel of the common variations of “Out of the Bottle.” You’ve got the “Body Switch Bottle” (The Change-Up, Switch, Freaky Friday), the “Angel Bottle” (Oh God!, Aladdin, Cocoon), the “Thing Bottle,” where some object or item causes the magic (The Mask, Jumanji, The Nutty Professor), and the “Curse Bottle” — which applies to those “jerk” movies where the magic will force them to wake up and grow. Lastly you’ve got the “Surreal Bottle” — a catch-all for stories where really weird things happen that don’t quite fit any of the other types (Pleasantville, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Some common pitfalls when writing this genre:
1. Don’t have the main character be constantly trying to undo the magic throughout Act Two. The whole point of these movies is that they can’t undo it (until a new opportunity in the third act changes that), and Act Two is about trying to get through something specific, urgent and important in “normal life” that the magic makes more challenging. The fun lies in watching them deal with those problems that the magic either creates or makes worse, with them unable to stop it.
2. Don’t make the magic unclear, unbelievable, mysterious, complicated, multi-faceted or gradual, in its revelation. With these movies, there is generally one specific magical premise that emerges at the Catalyst, and its rules and limits are made clear in the rest of the first act. It happens for a specific reason, at a specific moment, through a specific method — all of which is very clear to the audience. They are asked, all at once, to buy into this magical premise, and it’s an agreement they make with the movie to go along for the ride. (It helps that the magic comes in response to a clear wish from one of the characters, the fulfillment of which is something we can all relate to and want to see.)
3. Don’t make the magic mostly a positive thing in the main character’s life. It might give them special powers, but with those powers must come problems, conflicts and challenges that they are ill-prepared to deal with. This is the whole point — that the magic presses them to their limit. And all stories, really, have that in common — they are about characters with something extremely difficult and important going on, that they are forced to deal with, where they are overmatched, and where things tend to get worse and more complicated, right up until that last chance at victory in the climax.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.