What a character!

 

Quick: name your favorite movie character!

Most people will choose a hero, or protagonist, as their favorite character, like Atticus Finch or Indiana Jones (the number one and two heroes, respectively, in the American Film Institute’s 2003 “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villians” TV special), while others opt for the villain, or antagonist, like those who made Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader their gold and silver choices in the same poll. Most actors will confess they enjoy playing villains more than heroes – ‘bad’ is always more fun than ‘good,’ at least movie-wise; it’s just a pity you’ve got to die at the end, though… (Or be incarcerated, or lose the girl, get a bloody nose… whatever). You know the drill: The hero wins, the villain loses. Those are their functions in the story. (In a conventional sense, although there are anti-heroes and likeable villains – just watch any classic Hitchcock film for this paradigm shift…)

What makes them memorable is character. But what is character?

The dictionary defines character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” A bit lower down comes this alternate definition: “an account of the qualities or peculiarities of a person or thing.” In other words, ‘character’ may mean identity, or it could mean how someone is ‘unique.’ Different writers treat the issue of character according to their own concepts of it. Tough guy director Walter Hill, making “The Long Riders”, told American Film magazine back in 1980: “In my films, when someone has a gun pointed in his face, character is how many times he blinks.”

I’ve read thousands of scripts and I’ve ‘collected’ my own favorite characters in memory, like the transplanted marine biologist banished to ‘do time’ in Iowa because of university politics, or the creepy Gollum-like creature (years before the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed) who helped his pal get rid of dead bodies. A particularly memorable character was a whore in ancient Egypt  who threw her lot in with tomb plunderers – despite knowing the penalty was horrible death. None of these scripts ever made it to the movie screen, but it wasn’t because their characters weren’t memorable; if anything, their authors magnified the deficiencies of their stories by writing such contrastingly strong characters.

But character can successfully drive a story. And it it very important. As has been written here before, each story has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and usually the ending is the hardest part to get right. In a character-driven story, the plot is secondary to character development (think “American Beauty” or “Citizen Kane”), and the story is propelled forward by the protagonist. It’s a riskier venture, business-wise, so there aren’t as many character-driven films as there are plot-driven films, but occasionally you’ll see one ‘break out.’ “Napoleon Dynamite” is a perfect example of a character-driven movie that simply ‘hit,’ earning a respectable purchase price after a boisterous reception at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004; it went on, with the aid of shrewd marketing, to make millions for Paramount.

Character is a deciding factor in speculative (spec) scripts, meaning scripts that have not been ordered or paid for – in other words, most peoples’ scripts – because character is usually a solid indicator of whether the screenwriting is strong or simply frames a good idea. As a story analyst, I have recommended writers on the basis of their character writing – while rejecting their scripts outright for other reasons. Of course the ideal solution is to craft a solid script containing a cohesive story and plot, snappy dialogue and effective pacing and tone… But whatever you do, don’t forget good characters! They can be the best friends you’ll ever have – or the greatest villians you can imagine…

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