You can learn a lot — not just about screenwriting, but about storytelling — from watching movies. This helpful notion popped into my head because, since it was a rainy Sunday, a friend of mine and I took in a delightful film called Salmon Fishing In The Yemen. No spoiler details here: I just want to talk about the characters and how they develop, because it struck me that they were a very cleverly crafted bunch.
The hero (or is it anti-hero?) is Alfred, a quirky expert on salmon and their spawning habits. This is, of course, an offbeat profession, which sets us up for Alfred, who is an offbeat kind of guy. As played by the wonderfully accented Ewen McGregor, he is a sort of crusty thirty-something with a possible touch of Asperger’s — in short, he’s not a very socially adept guy. He seems more at home with fish and bugs than people.
The heroine, Harriet, is a clever, up-and-coming young exec with some vague sort of financial firm who is tasked with the job of cajoling the crusty, antisocial, I-don’t-suffer-fools-gladly Alfred into managing a project that he believes is ridiculous and next to impossible. Harriet is businesslike (we think) and sharp-as-a-tack, as a friend of mine used to say. She is played by the adorable Emily Blunt, who is unable, despite her persuasive powers, to cajole Alfred to agree to what he believes is a totally absurd venture. Enter Alfred’s boss, who threatens to ax him if he doesn’t take it on.
A clever little bureaucratic subplot is ably and amusingly spearheaded by Kristin Scott Thomas playing the role of a brassy PR agent for the Prime Minister of Britain (who flashes in and out via email).
What makes all this work? While the story has a clever and entertaining plot, it’s really character driven. The sparks between the two main characters start flying at their very first meeting and continue to fly for quite a while. We see the tension between them melt a little, then re-ignite. But here’s the deal: in their own way, they are each so likable that we want something good to happen for them both — we are rooting for them. We admire Alfred’s integrity and dedication, even if he is a bit uptight. And we admire Harriet’s smarts and her ability to coax Alfred along into believing that he actually has what it takes to turn the venture he’s dismissed as crazy into a reality.
What’s the bottom line here? Winsome characters win hearts. We’ll forgive characters a lot if they are likable and if we see them yearning to be happy, just as we all do. Write on!