The Screenwriter's Column
THE ESSENCE OF CHARACTER
by Linda Cowgill
Great movies depend on great characters, but what's the
key to creating ones? Character isn't a laundry list of qualities and traits;
it's shown in actions, emotional reactions, and choices characters make under
Great movies constantly replay in our imaginations, on
the same bill with other memories, fantasies and dreams. How do they get
there? What makes us include them in that highest of personal repertories?
Unlike other memories, we haven't directly experienced "the plot" of the
movie, only witnessed it. How then do movies stick with us?
Sometimes it may come from the verisimilitude of the
production: that house looked exactly like the one I grew up in! Sometimes
it may be the music, which has its own special key to memory (think of those
summer pop songs you'll know forever). Or it may be the overall mood of a
movie we recall: the desert island fantasy of Swiss Family Robinson;
the inevitable loss of innocence, romanticized in Summer of '42, more
painfully recounted in Stand By Me; or the way JAWS exploits
the simple, innate fear we all have in the bottomless ocean.
Chances are, however, that a movie's characters have a
lot to do with what sticks in the cerebral craw. In the best films, of
course, characters become the story; it's impossible to separate the two.
(When Paul Newman takes a bet and downs scores of hardboiled eggs in Cool
Hand Luke, is that a plot point, or a character moment? Obviously it's
both. Character and plot work together, and the more inexorable the
interaction appears, the more memorable the scene.) But how do great movie
characters result from screenplays, a mere recipe for the final movie meal?
How do actors meld a character so completely with story? We can't imagine
someone other than Humphrey Bogart as Casablanca's Rick, Dustin
Hoffman as Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo, Ellen Burstyn as Alice in
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. These actors became the characters.
But all great roles begin with words on paper - words that create the
emotions, thoughts and actions that actors can embody and play. Yes, an actor
has to "find" the character an author has written, but he can only do that
after the words have pointed the way. So how does a writer construct a
strong, believable character that can be molded into a memorable role by an
actor and director?
Screenwriters face no bigger challenge in an original
work than inventing compelling, authentic characters. A writer might
research her characters' lives, draw up character biographies and work on
details down to the color of her characters' socks, yet still not be able to
bring these personalities to life. How do successful screenwriters know what
brings their characters to life? Is there a trick that creates characters on
the page who command the attention of readers, and producers, and actors?
What great writers understand is that characters are not
defined in description by the writer or in dialogue (which is description by
the characters of themselves or others). Characters, just as real people,
are defined by their actions, by what they do and what they don't do. This
is the secret that great writers know and understand.
The essence of character is action
Rule #1: Any important character quality or trait must
be worked into the action of the story in order for it to have any meaning
for the audience.
Writers often want to take short cuts and tell us a
character's qualities or back-story through description, eschewing the more
challenging task of showing us who is protagonist is. If we never see a
demonstration of his/her important qualities in the story, how do we know
they're true? In the recent film The Clearing, Robert Redford plays
Wayne Hayes, the kidnapper's victim. We are told hešs a "great man" time and
again, ostensibly because he's rich, a self-made man, and his kids love him.
But does Wayne ever demonstrate his greatness anywhere in the film? He
cheated on his wife, was caught, then resumed the affair again, lying to her
about it. This more negative information we learn, interestingly, through
action. While his kids love him, he seems disconnected to his children,
especially his daughter. Yes, he had a successful business but its success
seems more the result of fortunate timing than business acumen. Furthermore,
his second big business effort, a consulting firm, went bust. What was so
great about this guy? The only real action demonstrating his kindness is
some affection he shows the family dog. Later on, (Spoiler Alert!) Wayne has
a chance to kill his abductor and flee to safety. But he can't deliver the
coup-de-grace and must face an unfortunate fate. Even this action spells
weakness, or equivocation, or a subtle death wish, or something other than
greatness. Even the argument that Wayne is a nice guy because he engages his
kidnapper on a human level doesn't make sense. We've known at least since the
development of the Stockholm Syndrome that hostages naturally bond with their
If a character is kind and this is important to the
story, then he needs to demonstrate kindness in the plot action. If a
character has a hot temper, we need to see the short fuse ignite and watch
her deal with the consequences. If a character is supposed to be great and
admirable, we have to see the significant action that shows us. Otherwise
these assertions are meaningless, and, if unproved in the case of a central
character, will lead to unsatisfying drama.
But a character's "plot action" is not about merely
showing a character doing something. Character isn't revealed by
seeing Jane studying or helping an old lady across the street when the light
is green and Jane has nothing better to do.
The essence of character is revealed in action,
Rule #2: Conflict strips away our masks and defenses. The
only way a character shows us who she really is, what her character is made
of, is how she deals with conflict.
Sixty years ago, Lajos Egri wrote in The Art of
Dramatic Writing that only in conflict do we reveal our true selves.
"Even an illiterate knows that politeness and smart talk are not signs of
sincerity or friendship. But sacrifice is."
Conflict, stress, and pressure strip us down to our core.
(Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all.") How we react to
trouble tells us about our essential selves. Do we fall apart in the face of
misfortune or buckle down and work harder? Do we sweep our problems under
the rug or chin up and face them? When trouble comes calling, do we run for
fear we'll be hurt or stand up and fight for what's right? Is our
perspective "what will happen to me?" or "what can I get done?"
Character, the kind that excites readers, actors and
audiences, is not the list of qualities and traits, a biography of where they
grew up and whether mommy loved them or not. This is the psychology of the
character. (Don't get me wrong, all this is important to know as the writer,
but little of it is important to the audience if they "get" what the
character is about on an emotional level.) Character, in the dramatic sense,
is shown in the strengths and weaknesses of the personality that we see
dramatized in action on stage or screen.
This is what the really good screenwriters know: stories
aren't about a situation or a series of actions; they're about characters
caught in conflict reacting to the situations in ways that the audience finds
compelling, identifiable and understandable. A character has a (back)story
but he is not that (back)story. Indeed, we could argue that the purpose of
drama is to demonstrate how (heroic) people take action that is outside the
realm of their personality. We show how people change or alter their basic
psychology when they realize their usual patterns of behavior will get them
killed. (Comedy, of course, or wistful drama like Forrest Gump, or
fantasies like the 007 series, is often built around the premise that a
"hero" will change his circumstances despite never having to undergo change
What do we know of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in
American Beauty? He's a frustrated middle-aged man who hates his
life. We don't get a life history that tells us why he's this way; we see it
demonstrated in his actions and through the conflict with his wife, daughter
and the external world. He's so sexually frustrated he obsesses on his
daughter's friend Angela and this raises the stakes of the story. Yet how and
why do we connect with him?
Even as we squirm while he makes a fool of himself with
Angela and things worse with his daughter, we admire his courage for
confronting the job he hates and turning the bad situation to his advantage.
We see in his emotional reactions regret over angry words he exchanges with
his daughter. We feel his longing and frustration with his wife when she
can't give an inch. And in the end, as he recognizes Angela's vulnerability,
we see in his actions his core humanity of putting someone else's needs above
his own desires. And this is why Lester is a great character and an
The essence of character is revealed in (moral)
choices made under stress
Rule #3: A character is defined by his choices.
This is perhaps the most important dramatic concept
surrounding character and story, and the least understood by new writers.
Great stories capture characters in situations where they are called on to
make difficult choices. Spiderman, Lester Burnham, Will Turner and Elizabeth
Swann (Pirates of the Caribbean), Jerry Maguire and Dorothy Boyd, are
all characters faced with hard choices. We know what's in their heart from
exposition or ancillary action. But we learn the extent to which they will
make a moral choice, even if it breaks their heart, by the action they
undertake. (For example, Spidey refuses a love that might jeopardize his
The really great writers understand that making a choice
is a dramatic action and they use it. They dramatize the situations
that place the character at the blazing crossroads of choice, then rake them
through the coals to turn their actions into significant moments of the plot.
A dramatically effective choice offers characters radically different
outcomes arising from autonomous decisions. (It's too easy if Superman has
no choice but to save the school. But if he has to choose between the lives
of many children and that of Lois Lane, things get tougher.) The best way to
frame these choices is in moral terms, but not in terms of moral absolutes.
New writers often offer characters choices between
something positive and something negative. But this isn't really a choice.
It doesn't lead to sacrifice. Unless it's Luke Skywalker choosing between
the good on the side of the rebels or standing with his father with the evil
Empire, it is dramatically ineffective because the negative doesn't represent
something the character truly wants. Consider the choice the Richard Dreyfus
character makes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Leaving his
wife and family seems like the only sane thing to do because she is such a
shrew, and the call of the unknown is so powerful. This lessens the impact of
his decision because we're rooting for him to go and couldn't care less if he
stays. What if, however, the Dreyfus character had a sick child? And the
choice was to stay and help the family, or fulfill his destiny and follow the
flying saucers. The stakes get higher, his choice becomes less automatic,
more moral (whatever his decision) and his need (to see other worlds) is more
Writers must understand that in drama characters reveal
themselves through action, they prove themselves in times of crisis or they
come up short. And this is our final, yet most important point: the moral
decision must have consequences. When the mildly maladjusted Elliot realizes
he must let his one good friend, ET, go home, he's made a difficult moral
choice, a sacrifice. It's hard, but it's then easy to see how hard Elliot
will marshal forces to keep ET from the government's clutches. The sheriff
in JAWS gives in to mayoral requests to keep the beach open, and a
bather dies as a result. The sheriff chose wrong, he sided with the mayor and
against the scientist, and the guilt over this choice will, with a desire to
avenge the deaths of swimmers by killing the shark, motivate him for the rest
of the story. There's a child's blood on his hands now, the hands of a
lawman, a family man, and a man who never really liked the water - the place
where his adversary lies. But he's going after the fish; he must act. He's
doing so under extreme pressure with a real moral imperative (to protect
innocent life), against a literally cold-blooded, amoral antagonist. Who's
going to stop reading or watching him now?
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