The Canvasser: The Protagonists

In this week’s post about the development of my screenplay, The Canvasser, I wanted to take a moment to discuss the two most characters in the story: the candidate Devon Shire and his campaign manager Marie Bellechance (names subject to change) and their roles in the screenplay.

Devon Shire, protagonist and titular character, starts the movies as an earnest yet slow-witted political canvasser who dreams of working in the Parliament of Canada. Despite spending seven years of his life volunteering for the party, his dreams are blocked by a lack of connections and a Parliamentary culture focused on prestige. Underemployed and with his savings nearly drained, Devon is faced with a ticking clock until he forced to go on welfare. A chance encounter convinces him to take a long-shot run for Ottawa City Council.

As the protagonist in a comedy, Devon has to be likeable, has to be someone that the audience can laugh at and be enough of an underdog to win the audiences sympathy. If all of these elements are done well, then the audience will laugh at his failures, cheer on his small victories and general want to see him succeed against overwhelming odds.

Why does likability matter? It the audience doesn’t like Devon, then the movie won’t work. The audience won’t care about his dire situation, his dreams or his long-shot campaign. While you can have a main character that isn’t likeable, like an anti-hero, it’s much more difficult to pull off and it has be part of their personal journey towards becoming a better person. In the case of The Canvasser, I tried to make Devon someone that audiences could get behind right from the beginning. Devon is polite, works hard and constantly looks on the bright side of life. He has small dreams but pursues them with passion no matter what obstacles are thrown his way. I also work to endear him to the audience by throwing obstacles at him that are clearly unfair. I keep him underemployed, prevent him from getting the job of his dreams for reasons of dubious merit, and give him “friends” that certainly don’t have his interests at heart. These are all things that we’ve experienced in their own lives and so the hope is that the audience sees a little bit of themselves in Devon’s plight.

In almost every story, the protagonist needs to have a personality flaw that holds them back in some way, shape or form. This flaw creates tension early on and provides momentum to the story as the character has to learn how resolve or overcome his flaw. The process of resolving this tension provides the character with a character arc that drives the story forward and shows his personal growth. In the case of The Canvasser, Devon’s flaw is that he lacks self-respect. He has spent his life giving his time to candidates and parties that have no use for him. His friends use him at their leisure and life keeps kicking him down. His long-shot campaign isn’t really about winning or losing, it’s about learning to believe in himself and see himself and his life as worthwhile. When he succeeds in this goal, he gains pride in himself the respect of those around him. While he loses the campaign, he does find a job and get his career started. Thus when the movie ends, the audience is satisfied that Devon’s in much better place than when he started.

The second major character and almost a co-protagonist in the story is Marie Bellechance, a highly sought after political organizer who cut her teeth in the Assembly of First Nations. By this point in her life, Marie is disillusioned, cynical about politics and is ready to move to the private sector and cash in. Her flaw is her lack of faith in politics and it’s potential to bring forth positive and needed change. Based on her experience on her knowledge of the history of colonialism, she has come to the conclusion that politics is simply about two things: money and winning and usually in that order. This makes her a perfect foil to Devon and provides loads of opportunities for both conflict and comedy.

When I wrote the original draft, my focus was on Devon but when I went back and edited it, I found I was more and more interested in Marie and her personal story. I liked that she was a strong and active character with her own needs and internal conflicts. She is not there simply to support Devon but has her own goals and dreams, all of which are challenged by Devon’s optimism. So I went back and furthered developed her story so that she would go through an arc where she moves from a cynic looking to cash in to an inspirational leader who takes charge of her and the country’s future, based heavily on her experiences with Devon’s campaign. Likewise, once Devon completes his arc and gains respect for himself, he steps aside and supports Marie as she steps up and fulfills her potential. I attempted to create a story where two characters have their personal character arcs of equal importance and mutually reinforcing. At this point, I’m not sure it’s there yet but it’s certainly come a long way.

The major challenge with having two protagonists in as screenplay is length. Currently, the last draft was about 136 pages which is far too long. Based on the advice of some friends, I hope to get it down to about 115-120 pages at a maximum. Hopefully, I won’t have to cut any of the character development scenes of these two characters as I feel they’re the heart and soul of the story.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, I’ll have some exciting news for you soon.

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