Many apologies for how long it has taken to get this installment out. No excuse on my part, apart from real life getting in the way.
As with the previous article, examples are mostly taken from
The Matrix. If you have it handy, you may want to watch or
read the film again. Or you may wish to
3 to get an overview of the film's structure. I'm going to throw around terms like "second act turning point" without explaining them, so please go back to the previous articles if you get stuck.
What is a character?
The next few articles have a theme, and the theme can be summed up
as: Movies are not real. An obvious point, one might think, but
you may be surprised how often this is forgotten.
This article is about character and characterisation, so the theme
for this article is: Characters are not people. This is
true even if the character is based on a real person.
There's a mostly apocryphal story which is told in various forms to
students of fine art which illustrates what I mean. The story goes
that Pablo Picasso is commissioned to paint a portrait of a woman,
and her husband enters the studio to inspect it. After looking
at it, the man says that the painting is a failure as it hardly
resembles his wife at all. Picasso objects, saying that it bears
quite a close resemblance. The argument gets more and more heated
until Picasso asks, "Well, what does your wife look like?" The man
produces a photograph of the woman. Picasso examines it closely for
a minute then hands it back to the man saying, "You may be right.
I didn't realise your wife was quite this small and flat."
A character is a work of art, just like a figure in
a painting or a sculpture. Like all works of art, a character's
aspects are designed to be metaphorical, comprehensible and streamlined.
There is a lot of material on art theory which goes into what a work of
art actually is, and I do not propose to reproduce that here, but I will
give one example to illustrate this point. Peter Shaffer's screenplay of
Amadeus (based on his play) is loosely based on the career of
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) told through the crazed recollection
of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). This film isn't actually a
historical biography, but rather it is a metaphor for the
tension between genius (symbolised by Mozart) and mediocrity (symbolised
by Salieri). The point is that even this "historical" drama is not
real, but storytelling intended to make a point (or many points) with
I know Rick Blaine in Casablanca better than I know
myself. Rick is always Rick. I'm a bit iffy.
-- Robert McKee, Story
It has been said that inside every writer is an actor trying to get out.
This is at best partly true, as most writers, were they ever to set foot on a
stage or in front of a camera, would suck at it. It's also ironic for the
screenwriter or playwright because, most of the time, it is not them that
will eventually act. Indeed, one of the things that the screenwriter has
to remember is that they are not an actor, and so has to tread a
sometimes fine line between getting their intentions across and
micro-managing the performance which the actors will eventually give.
(More on this next article when we look at scenes.)
Nevertheless, a writer has to act because they must create the
dialogue and action which an actor must eventually perform. The way
they do this is to try to achieve empathy with their characters.
Empathy, literally, is the ability to get inside the
feelings of someone else. This can be hard to do. What if your character
is a middle-aged Korean woman, a psychopath, a talking ant or a
sentient computer program? (I'm assuming for the sake of argument that
you are not actually a middle-aged Korean woman, psychopath, talking
ant etc.) You may not find it easy to look inside the souls of some
characters, but you must, because only by doing this can you create a
whole character for them.
One thing that may help you is understanding "bad" characters.
The key to empathising with a "bad" character is understanding that
nobody thinks they are bad. Unless you're deliberately trying to
produce a cartoon villain, a "bad guy" is just a normal guy dealing
with what life has given him/her.
Special attention needs to be paid to the protagonist. Remember that
the protagonist is the character through whose eyes the story is told.
Therefore, not only must the writer empathise with the character, but
so must the audience. There are many techniques which a writer can
use to do this, but two of which deserve special mention because
they're so easy to spot.
The first common technique is vulnerability. If a character
shows a vulnerable side, the audience will interpret this as a kind
of intimacy, and as a result, will identify with the character more.
An example from The Matrix is the party scene where Neo
first meets Trinity. We have already hinted that he is a loner,
and putting him in an unfamiliar situation, obviously not enjoying
himself, and in the presence of a mysterious attractive woman in tight
PVC, just rubs in how out of his depth he truly is. Vulnerability
almost always works because
insecurity is a universal character trait; deep down,
we all suffer from it. Tapping into this helps the audience identify
with the protagonist.
The second common technique is dramatic irony. The intent
is that if we know something that the protagonist doesn't, that
makes us more involved with the protagonist. So, for example, if we
show a shot of the saboteur interfering with some safety equipment
that the protagonist's life depends on, that makes us feel for
the protagonist all the more. Be careful, though. Dramatic
irony doesn't have this effect if the audience doesn't care about
the protagonist. At best all you have achieved is some heavy-handed
foreshadowing. At worst, you have made the audience even more
annoyed, or even cheering at the possibility that your protagonist
may be harmed. Consider yourself warned.
Characterisation is what physicists would call the
observables of a character. It's the set of human properties
which we can see. A character has an age, sex, hair colour, job, taste in
music, political beliefs and so on. Characterisation can be external
(e.g. style of speech and gesture) and internal (e.g. attitude towards stupid
people). It can be from the past (e.g. education) or the present (e.g.
current living arrangements) and can change over the course of the
movie (e.g. current partner).
Characterisation from the character's past is called back story.
Back story serves two main purposes. As a story device, a judicious
revelation from a character's past can help increase the tension at a
turning point or help explain a character's actions. A classic example
is the scene from near the end of The Empire Strikes Back where
Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) reveals to Luke (Mark
Hamill) that he is Luke's father. Back story of this kind is
occasionally revealed in flash back.
The other main purpose of back story is to help an actor prepare for
a role by understanding where the character comes from. Actors usually
find that half a page or so of back story can help a lot with developing
their own empathy with their characters. An interesting piece of trivia
is that for The Abyss, the writer/director James Cameron got
science fiction writer Orson Scott Card to write the first three
chapters of the film's novelisation as back story which he gave to the
three main actors (Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael
Biehn) to help with their preparation.
Before we look at true character, the step beyond
characterisation, it's first necessary to understand dilemma.
Basically, a dilemma is a real choice which a character has to make.
Consider a scene which occurs in every James Bond film. The
first is at the start where M calls in Bond and tells him about
the latest evil person who is attempting to take over the world,
or whatever. Bond has some options. For example: Does he go
after the bad guy, or does he go home and do something else?
This is not a dilemma. It would not occur to Bond to do anything
but go after the bad guy. A choice between being the tough
action hero that you are or going off and playing golf or something is
no choice at all. A true choice is a choice between
irreconcilable goods or multiple evils. An example of
this is another scene which occurs near the end of every James Bond
film, where the evil person has the "Bond girl" hostage, and Bond is
faced with a choice between saving the world or saving the girl
(irreconcilable goods) or, alternatively, letting the world be
destroyed or letting the girl die (multiple evils). Bond's solution,
of course, involves both saving the world and getting the girl by some
clever means. That's life when you're an action hero.
Similar scenes occur in The Matrix. At the first
act turning point, Neo is offered the option of taking one of two
pills. The red pill will take him on an unknown journey where he
will be given the answer to the question which has been plaguing
him for years. The blue pill will return him home to his normal
life which we have already established he doesn't like much. For Neo,
this is no choice at all.
On the other hand, at the second act turning point, Neo is
faced with a choice between to saving his own life, or
sacrificing his life to try to save Morpheus. This is a true
dilemma between multiple evils. Someone is clearly going to die (or
so the Oracle told him), and the choice is: is it going to be me, or
is it going to be him?
Characterisation is what people can find out about you from the
outside in the normal course of events. True character, however,
is something quite different. It is the core of your personality, the
heart of your humanity (assuming the character is human, of course).
When you get down to it, is the character good or evil, cruel or kind,
selfish or selfless?
True character can only be revealed in one way: by pressure. The
greater the pressure is, the greater the revelation is. The reason
for this should be obvious. Anyone can do the "right thing" when it's
easy, or when doing the wrong thing will gain them nothing. Making
the decision hard is what helps the revelation.
As a side note, one reason why good sequels are so hard to write is
that it's difficult to find more significant aspects of true character
to reveal in subsequent films.
Endings, frankly, are a bitch.
-- William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
In part 2, we noted that to keep an audience, you need to get the
first ten minutes of the film right. This, however, just keeps them
in the theatre. It doesn't guarantee that the movie will work.
Despite the fact that nobody knows what makes a movie work,
it's possible to come up with a few generalities.
An old Hollywood saying is that "movies are about their last twenty
minutes". There's nothing that will kill a movie at the box office
quite like an unsatisfying ending.
Just like the opening of a film, the ending has a structure.
The three parts of the ending are crisis, climax and
Next time we'll be looking at scenes and composition. One of the
things that we will note is that over the course of an act, the
drama/tension/humour builds. It follows that the final dilemma
presented to the protagonist should be the biggest. This dilemma
is called the crisis. It can in principle occur anywhere in the
film, but the two most common places are at the second-act turning point
(e.g. in The Matrix) and directly before the climax (e.g. in Star
Wars; see below).
Where to place the crisis depends on how long the climactic action
is. In The Matrix the climactic action starts with Neo
re-entering the matrix to save Morpheus and ends with the defeat of
Agent Smith. In Star Wars, the climactic action is much shorter.
The crisis takes place while Luke (Mark Hamill) is in a fighter
attacking the Death Star and has to decide whether to use the computer
or use the Force (irreconcilable goods). The pressure in this case is
that he is the last pilot able to destroy the space station, and if he
fails, the rebellion will be destroyed.
The crisis is a deliberately static moment in the action, which gives
the protagonist time to consider the dilemma and the audience time
to feel the compressed energy which will be released in the climactic
action. It is almost always a weakness in the screenplay if this scene
is skimmed over or put offscreen.
The crisis is so important that it is often known as the
Take a "creature feature", for example, such as Jaws or
Alien. There is some creature which is terrorising some person
or group of people. You know before the movie starts that there has
to be a scene where the protagonist faces the creature. Similarly,
in Toy Story 2, the theme of toys outliving their usefulness
when childhood ends has been set up from the beginning. The obligatory
scene occurs when Woody (Tom Hanks) has to decide whether or not he
wants to see out his owner's childhood or not.
I'm going to skim over the climax for the moment and come back to
it next time once we've looked at scenes and composition more closely.
For now, we'll define it loosely as the high point of interest.
It's the moment that the entire film has been set up for. In an
action/adventure film, it's the point where the "bad guy" is defeated.
In a romance film, it's the point where the lovers are united forever.
(At least until the sequel, of course.)
The resolution is everything that comes after the climax. In a
television sitcom, it's the part after the last commercial break
where the cast re-gathers for one last joke before the credits.
Generally this is considered gauche in screenwriting, but it can be
done if it's the right kind of film, such as in Men in Black II.
The resolution can be used for many purposes. The most common is
to show how life has changed by the events of the film. This can be
as simple as a shot of the family, reunited, at a picnic. Or it could
be a full scene, such as the medal ceremony in Star Wars. One
technique which used to be popular was to show a series of captions
which told of the fates of the various characters (e.g. Animal
House, American Graffiti, A Fish Called Wanda).
A more modern take on this idea was used in Four Weddings and a
Funeral, with a series of wedding photographs.
The "how life has changed" resolution may also be rendered as a
speech by the protagonist (this is used in The Matrix and
The Terminator amongst many others). This is especially
useful if the screenwriter is deliberately setting up a sequel.
The second most common is the slow curtain, which is a
courtesy to the audience so that they don't feel that the film
ended abruptly. In the
screenplay, this is usually a single paragraph of action which describes a
camera motion or action which is uncompleted. Note that it is
not the job of the screenwriter to actually specify camera
motions (unless they are a writer-director), but it's often rendered
as a rising crane shot or pan across a landscape or something like
As an example, here is the final line of Dogma, written
by Kevin Smith:
Cop cars and fire trucks start to pull up.
Simple but effective. No need to show the aftermath, just a little
snippet to show that there is actually an aftermath, and life goes on.
You can also use the resolution to resolve a subplot. This is
difficult to do well, however, and in the hands of an inexpert
screenwriter will end up boring. Generally speaking, the end of the
film is the conclusion of the main plot. In Story, Robert McKee
reports that this technique is used in The In-Laws, written by
Andrew Bergman. I haven't seen that film and can't think of any good
examples of this technique being used. Perhaps an interested reader
could find one and report back.
The homework for this week is: Pick a movie you've
already seen. (It can be the same one you've been using.)
choices and non-choices which the protagonist is
asked to make. For those which are true dilemmas, what does this
reveal about the character?
Identify the crisis, climax and resolution.
What dilemma is the protagonist subjected to at the climax? Is this
an obligatory scene? How close to the start of the film can you
see events which mean that this scene must happen?
How long is the resolution? What happens? Is it a "slow curtain",
or is there one or more full scenes here? Why?
As always, report back what you find.
It's been quite a few months since last time. I promise the next
installment won't be quite this long away, but it probably
won't be in the next week. We'll be covering scenes (including
dialogue scenes and action scenes) and how they fit together into
the overall scheme of things.