by David Perlis
“What-Ifs” are big these days. Maybe they always were. What if we had lost WW2? (Man in the High Castle.) What if plummeting fertility rates threatened our society? (The Handmaid’s Tale.) What if 2% of the human population suddenly vanished. (The Leftovers.) One of my professor’s at UCLA lauded the What-If. “That’s your hook,” he’d say. No arguments here. I’m convinced. But I’ve decided there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Here’s the issue: What-If’s are often about building worlds—but drama is about building characters.
Doing it Wrong
I had high hopes for last year’s The Lobster. From the trailers, it looked right up my alley. Here’s the hook: “What if singles were rounded up, and forced to find a partner, else they be turned into animals?” It’s almost Kaufman-esque with its magical absurdity. I loved the concept—but found the movie a total bore. Why? It spent more time building a bizarre world than it did giving me a character I actually wanted to follow around for an hour and a half. The stakes were high. The whimsy was spot on. But I never felt engaged with this world from the POV of a unique character who helped bring the concept to life. Why was I following this guy, and how did this world affect him in some meaningful way? Frankly, I just felt stuck on the ride, and I wasn’t impressed. Some will be quick to say, “But it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay!” Yup—and maybe if it had characters to care about with unique needs, it would have won.
Doing it Right
I’m a big fan of graphic novelist, Brian K. Vaughn, first stumbling upon his brilliance with his epic space opera, Saga. But before that gem, he wrote a What-If called Y: The Last Man. The premise? “What if every man alive suddenly died—except for one.”
Now your protagonist is clear—it’s the last man! And every protagonist must (absolutely, must!) have a dramatic need. What does our last man want? It’s absolutely brilliant. In a world where he is the only man left, his big quest is to reunite with his girlfriend, who is halfway across the world, and doesn’t even know he’s still alive.
And from this need, Vaughn creates a world that opposes our hero again, and again, and again.
Here’s another What-If, which focuses less on building a re-imagined world, but still creates the right character for the journey: What if the world were literally controlled by evil corporations? (“Dude…that’s not a what-if…that’s reality.” Again, no arguments here—but that’s really another post altogether.) Anyway! Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot doesn’t work because he created a world based around the Evil Corp concept—it works because the protagonist is a socially anxious, schizo hacker, bent on fighting it.
I’ve been slacking on my homework, not having yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale, but I read the book, and I’m just guessing the show has a spot-on start, with the POV of a Handmaid. And The Leftovers? I just re-upped my HBO account yesterday to see how they’re tackling that one. Frankly, I’m not yet sold on their angle (Justin Theroux’s copper, What-his-name), but I’ll give it a chance, and save my praises or my boos for another post, another day.
Here’s your super surprise shocker-ending to keep you all going “ooooo!” I’m working my own What-If. Won’t disclose it here, but just know, it’s an awesome idea—or, it will be, once I find the right character to tell the story. Stay tuned.