A character needs a goal or goals. They need to be important or have some meaning (the stakes). And he/she can't have forever to accomplish it (urgency).
A lot of stories have clear goals and stakes, but no urgency, so they'll often introduce "the ticking clock." For example, American Pie is based around trying to get laid before graduation. Does it really matter if they don't get some before graduation?
No urgency, goals, or stakes? Then point a gun at the main character or his family.
Movies can be about cloning, sports, romance, sexcapades, virtual reality, breaking into dreams, hitmen, space adventures, conspiracies, war, or whatever the hell Donnie Darko was about, but it's alarming to me how often films about such varied topics essentially boil down to "I have to save my wife/kids."
Fucking Monogamous-Heterosexual Patriarchy.
Can we seriously not think of any goals that are about more than creating/protecting/avenging the family?
Let's break it down.
|Wouldn't it be great if he knocked the pie up and|
they got married then their fritter got kidnapped?
Protecting Family - Air Force One is a good example, as is most Harrison Ford movies. The MC's wife and kid is kidnapped and he has to find a way to get them back alive in the next 90 minutes.
Avenging Family - The Fugitive is a good example here. Harrison Ford's wife is murdered, he is wrongfully convicted, and when he busts out he tracks down the guy that did it. There are countless "Revenge plots" out there. Often the Avenge plot is given to a kid who seeks vengeance for his parents.
With those three subsets of the "Family" goal, you'll find a shockingly high number of films fit it.
I'll use Inception as an example. While it's about a reverse heist, planting an idea in someone's mind, ultimately for the main character, the goal is to get back to his kids in America and that's why he pulls the job. I think this detracts from the film since it rings so hollow. We don't ever see the kids but for a few glimpses and they just seem like boring-ass kids to me. Do you think the film is better because Cobb is trying to get back to his kids? The goal of the heist was to convince a mogul to break up his father's empire. What if the heist had a better goal that the audience and the main character was more invested in. Then we wouldn't need to tack on the kids.
To illustrate my point, I'm going to go through IMDB's top films and look for positive rather than negative examples. Think about the main character's goals in these films.
1. Shawshank Redemption - For a while you think this would be an Revenge plot, but it never pays off. This film is a bit of a mystery since it really doesn't have goals for most of the time. Andy has goals, but the audience isn't let in on it till after the fact.
2. The Godfather - The main character wants to stay out of the family business but it keeps bringing him back in. His woman isn't down with it so it creates a dilemma. So the family aspect is pulling on him from both sides, but nobody kidnaps his wife, so I'm going to check this one in my column.
3. Godfather Part II - Again, this film is ABOUT family, but the goal isn't so simple as "save my kidnapped wife." And again, family is tugging on the main character from both sides.
4. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - It's been so long since I've seen this, IIRC it's really about money.
6. 12 Angry Men
7. Schindler's List
8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
9.The Dark Knight - Here's the first film on the list that really fits into the cliche's I was talking about, and again it's Christopher Nolan. He's notorious for using female characters as basically 1-dimensional motivators for the main character. Also, this film should fall down the list as scores tend to decrease over time.
10. LOTR - The Return of the King - While I don't think it deserves to be anywhere near this high, you won't find a family plot for Frodo.
11. Inception - see above
12. The Empire Strikes Back - Ah, a good example. Luke is the main character and his goal in the film is to become a jedi, confront his nemesis, save his friends (Leia is his sister, but he doesn't know that yet...). While his friends are held hostage, this doesn't become the storytelling engine for quite some time into the film.
13. Seven Samurai
|I just want to get a nice house in the|
burbs with her and make her squeeze out my runts.
16. Star Wars - Superb plot about becoming a man, confronting evil, and adventure. Sure there's sort of a romantic tension going on, but there's not even a kiss on the lips in this film IIRC.
17. LOTR - Fellowship - See above
18. City of God - I haven't seen this one.
19. Casablanca - While certainly about a romance, look at how it ends.
20. Once Upon a Time in the West.
|It's a birth control metaphor|
Yes there is a romantic sub-plot, but it's kind of Trinity's plot, not as much Neo's. Contrast this with The Matrix Reloaded where Neo's goal for the entire film is to save Trinity.
22. Rear Window
23. Raiders of the Lost Ark - Again there's a romantic subplot, but it's almost single-mindedly about finding the Ark of the Covenant, that is the storytelling engine.
24. The Usual Suspects - Crime drama plus mystery plot plus twist ending.
25. The Silence of the Lambs - Clarice doesn't even have a romantic interest in the film, which leads people to see her and Lecter has having a romantic connection. I don't think it's romantic (and yeah, I know how the novel Hannibal ends).
27. Se7en - Spoiler Alert - While this film is about chasing a serial killer, at the end it suddenly becomes an "Avenge Family" plot. I think this one works better because this isn't used as a storytelling engine, hunting the serial killer is the engine, so this ends up only coming up with a few minutes left and so we get an entire film's worth of story-telling engine in just a matter of minutes, which is why I think it's such a powerful ending.
These are some of the greatest films of all time. Now let's look at truly disappointing films. I've just googled "most disappointing films of all time" and culled a list of the most popular entrants. Here goes:
Spiderman 3 - Peter Parker is again trying to juggle the girl and the superherodom. That's fine, but then comes the revenge plot when he discovers who realllly killed his uncle in the first film (even though he totally got revenge in the first movie), plus there's Sandman, a villain motivated by trying to save his daughter. Add that all up and you've got a trifecta of all three family plots. That and Peter Parker becomes an emo lounge singer.
|Hey, remember when it was Harrison|
Ford and Sean Connery fighting Nazis...
Terminator 3 - The goal in Terminator 1 is for Sarah to avoid being killed by a robot from the future (and conceive John Connor) but the storytelling engine is The Chase for sure. T2 is again a chase, with John Connor being the target. The goal here isn't simply to avoid death, but they also try to prevent the post-apocalyptic future from happening, and they succeed...or do they? What's the goal in T3? To avoid death and to prevent the apocalypse...again. Only it turns out that's not the goal, the goal was actually just for John and his woman to hide away so they can make babies and get ready for the future where they will become important. Basically what they've done is rip the 2nd movie's balls off and slapped a pair of baby-making ovaries on it. (No offense to ovaries, they just aren't balls.)
|We can't wait to get married!|
Superman Returns - Oh for fucks sake. Superman returns to Earth to discover Lois Lane has a kid that's not his, but then it turns out later, very obviously, that it IS Superman's kid. Lex Luthor comes along and kidnaps both the girl and the kid. Yay.
Little Fockers - Yeah, this surprisingly made quite a few lists. Meet the Parents is interesting because Ben Stiller HAS the girl. Now he just has to make an impression on her parents and everything goes hilariously wrong. Little Fockers is about Ben Stiller and his wife and kids going through troubles and blood started pouring out of my ears 35 minutes in so I couldn't really tell you what it was about.
Shrek the Third - Haven't seen it, but apparently it's about Shrek becoming a father. Sounds like a whimsical story to me.
The Godfather Part III - Need I say more?
|If Jurassic Park has taught me anything, it's that every|
character either gets eaten by a dinosaur, or has babies.
To really drive the point home, let's look at few examples of family plots that are original.
(spoilers of course) Is set inside Jim Carrey's dream as his memories of his ex-gf are being erased. He decides that he doesn't want the memories erased and wants to call it off, but he can't wake up. So he tries to get his mental projection of his ex-gf to safety so he can keep the memories of her and their relationship, flaws and all. It's about appreciating things for what they are. Then there's the ending where they meet and kind of hook-up again, destined probably (certainly if you've read the script [they discover they've erased each other multiple times, not just once]) to relive the same doomed relationship. Now that's an interesting goal.
How about Solaris (2002 version)
(Spoilers) George Clooney is called to a space station around a distant planet because he's a psychiatrist and something's gone wrong with the crew. So at first the story is driven by a mystery. What's happening?
There's even this: "I could tell you what's happening, but that wouldn't really tell you what's happening." Which is entirely unlike "Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is, they have to see it for themselves." Which is quickly followed up by a verbal explanation of the Matrix. But I digress.
So Clooney starts to experience what's happening, and the what is that dead loved ones from your memories appear on the space station as living breathing people, just as you remember them. So Clooney's dead wife shows up and is all like, hey George, what's happening? The idea behind this is that Solaris either is or has some sort of Alien life on it and this is how we make first contact, not with humanoid beings with lumpy foreheads or pointy ears, but with beings that defy all of our understanding of what life is. So for the rest of the film Clooney tries to cope with his fake wife. Is she real? What is real? She thinks, therefore she is, right? Do you stay here and live with her? Or go back to Earth and risk taking this phenomenom with us? How do I know I'm real and not a projection too? So again, this takes the relationship plot but makes it about an idea, not physically getting the girl.
Being John Malkovich
|The 15 halfths floor.|
The most egregious abuser of the ticking clock and the hostage family is the show 24.
This all happens in season one, AKA 24 hours.
Jack's wife Teri suspects that their teenage daughter Kim is in trouble. They think she was run over by a car and go to the hospital but discover it was one of Kim's friends, and Kim is still missing. Jack suspects that her disappearance is connected with terrorists.
Teri goes searching with a man she thinks is the father of Kim's friend, but he turns out to be a terrorist. Teri smashes him over the head with a rock and escapes to be rescued by CTU agents who actually turn out to be terrorists who recapture her and take her to the compound where they are holding her daughter Kim.
A terrorist is gonna rape Kim, so Teri offers herself up instead. He then rapes her offscreen. The bad guys are about to kill both women, but then they miraculously are saved.
Teri and Kim are now safe and go to a hospital. Teri has abdominal pain and takes a pregnancy test which comes up positive.
|Liam Neeson fucks you up for kidnapping his daughter only once.|
Jack Bauer's too busy, he's got a three strikes rule for that.
Teri is rescued and lies to Jack, telling him that Kim is okay, when she thinks she's dead. They then learn that Kim is alive, but has been rekidnapped. Jack tells Teri this and then she tells him that she's pregnant.
Jack then rescues Kim and is taking her back to CTU HQ, but en route, Teri, who is back at CTU discovers that one of Jack's colleagues is a double agent. The agent takes her hostage. The agent destroys all evidence of double-agentness then shoots Teri in the stomach and leaves.
Jack comes back to find Teri slumped over in the chair, he verifies that she is dead as the ticking clock closes out the season.
Yes, that all happened in 24 hours.
Oh and the main plot of the season is an assassination plot against a presidential candidate, this was just a sub-plot.
These aren't women so much as they are professional hostages/baby-machines.
They made 7 more seasons of this...
So if you want to avoid cliche, then have your male characters care about something more than just getting/saving/avenging the girl.