In the last part, I looked at my setting, and decided that a diner still works wonderfully for this story.
In this part, we get down to the real work of prewriting: Brainstorming the characters and the mystery.
First, what I don’t want in regards to the mystery.
I don’t want this to be without reason. This isn’t going to be a story about a lunatic who’s picked the hero at random. It’s not going to be a case of mistaken identity, or a misunderstanding that gets resolved. This is going to be a real conflict that can’t easily be solved through talking.
I don’t want this to be a case of everyone knowing the answer to the mystery except the viewer. The character whose life is being threatened must legitimately not know why the antagonist is doing this. However, I refuse to use a cheap ploy like amnesia to explain why the character doesn’t know.
I don’t want the main character to be a medical professional who’s failed to save a family member of the villain. I don’t want the main character to be either a prosecutor or defense lawyer who the villain holds responsible for taking someone away from them. No drunk drivers that killed a kid. All of these have been done to death.
I don’t want this to turn into some spy/political thriller. The reasons for what’s happening are personal, and between the main characters.
And last, I don’t want the reveal to completely ruin sympathy for the protagonist. We should never be rooting for the villain to kill the hero. However, I want the reveal to be significant enough that, combined with their interactions throughout the story, it makes the villain at least partially sympathetic, as well. A reasonable person driven to unconscionable actions, not a monster at heart.
The way I see it, there are two main motivations for the villain to want the hero dead. Either the villain holds the hero responsible for some irretrievable loss, or the hero is somehow standing in the way of the villain achieving/acquiring something. Because the most likely outcome of holding someone hostage and murdering them in a diner is either death or imprisonment, I don’t see why the villain would use these means to remove the hero as an obstacle. We’ll roll with the assumption that the villain is holding the hero accountable, and doesn’t care about the consequences.
The kinds of losses that would drive someone to this extreme are few. Loss of job, loss of marriage, loss of family/friend/significant other. Loss of marriage is something that would be unlikely, given the earlier stipulation that the hero can’t know what they did. Loss of job could work, but only an unstable mind would turn to violence in retaliation of that, and sitting down to have lunch and conversation with the victim doesn’t read as a naturally unstable mind. Either of these also feel petty as a reveal in a story where the stakes start so high. Loss of life it is, then.
This is about as far as we can go in building the mystery without having characters. So let’s switch over.
I see the villain as being older than the hero. Smart and determined, but beaten down by life. I feel that works well–the life experience of an older villain here makes our hero feel more like an underdog. So let’s start with how old or hero would be.
I wouldn’t be looking for a hero that’s middle-aged or older. The older I made the hero, the less of a shock it feels like to have a secret in their past that might lead here. But I also wouldn’t want it to be a teenager or a college student. This is someone who has a career, who is settled into a routine, and who has a past. Someone in their mid-thirties, then? And the villain could be anywhere from middle-aged to retired.
The genders don’t matter, so let’s have one of them female. An older male villain and a young female hero would work, but I’m already picturing Anthony Hopkins in the villain’s shoes. Let’s turn away from that by reversing the genders. An older woman and a younger man.
This is a movie that will mostly consist of dialogue between the two. Like most movies carried by few characters, how they interact will be vital.
I see the villain as a woman who talks freely about things that have nothing to do with the current situation. She is in power, and so she can steer the conversation. She covers up whatever hurt it is that drove her to this by faking easy conversation about anything else. She could be cold, focused on the end-goal. But then why would she choose to sit and talk, rather than killing the hero as soon as she gets an opening?
I have a half-formed idea that she might be blaming him for the death in order to cover up her own feelings of guilt. I have no idea how or why at the moment, but that would be an interesting turn to help supply much-needed complexity, and sympathy, to the character.
Our villain is coming from a position of strength and authority. Our hero needs to be proactive and resourceful. We’re not looking for someone who accepts his own death or starts begging for his life. This is someone who is determined to either turn the tables or to convince the villain not to kill him. She has given him an hour to escape. He has to make the most out of his time.
He has family and friends to come home to, a purpose in life, hopes for the future. He is in contrast to her. He is looking forward, while she is consumed by the past. If we stated this theme, it would be too obvious, but there may be a place for it in the character development if not the dialogue.
Let’s run with that. Let’s make the hero sincere, earnest, if not quite idealistic or naive. He believes in things and has hope. So maybe he starts from a position of trying to talk the villain down, and tries to escape or call for help only once that initial effort fails?
So we know generally what we’re aiming for with the mystery, and we’re getting a feel for who our characters are. Next post, we’ll delve into details. What is the hero’s job? Will that factor into the reveal or serve as a red herring? What is the reveal? We’ll get all that pinned down.