Joe Forrest looks at an important difference between characters. On the one hand there are those who change over the course of a story and then those who don’t change, but instead discover or reveal hidden traits deep within their personality.
CHARACTERS WHO CHANGE
Some films have characters who fundamentally change. They were bad, and the events of the story ask of them to change, to become good. In screenwriting terms, they have to change because of their flaw, to meet their true inner needs, to be reborn, etc.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is a miserable, cynical man who sees the worst in everything. As he repeats the same day over and over again, he moves through greed, depression, helplessness and near insanity, eventually coming out at the other end a new man, able to appreciate life in all its beauty.
In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a decorated war hero who finds himself drawn into the “family business” that he was never supposed to be a part of. The assassination attempt on his father, killing the man responsible and the accidental murder of his love turn his heart cold. By the final act he is ruthless man, capable of terrible actions.
I think of this kind of character moving along a timeline,
arcing as they go along.
When I’m studying or planning out a character journey, I think of this kind of character moving along a timeline, arcing as they go along. I mark out the key events that hit them and the key changes in personality that occur as a result.
CHARACTERS WHO REVEAL THEIR TRUE PERSONALITY
Other films have characters who don’t necessarily change, but instead are revealed to be more complex than presented at the start of the film. The chain of events in the film reveal to us (and perhaps to themselves) that there is more to them than meets the eye. These characters can be harder to empathise with sometimes, but when it’s done well the intrigue pulls you in. The secrets and lies that we keep from others lend themselves well to the voyeurism of cinema.
An extreme example would be A History of Violence. Tom Stall, a likeable family man, has his diner held up by two sadistic men. Tom springs into action and expertly kills both men. The ordeal brings more bad men Tom’s way, who accuse him of being someone else. They provoke Tom, getting too close to his family and briefly kidnapping his son. The more pressure put on Tom, the more layers are peeled away, until the dark core of his personality is revealed.
The secrets and lies that we keep from others
lend themselves well to the voyeurism of cinema
In The King of Comedy, a nervous wanabee comedian does his best to get a break into show business. He pesters the studios and agencies, and doesn’t have much luck. When things don’t work out, he resorts to kidnapping his favourite comedian.
When studying characters who reveal themselves, I tend to draw a circle with smaller circles within it. The timeline moves from the outermost circle to the innermost circle. As more pressure is put on the character, more circles are stripped away to reveal deeper, maybe darker aspects of their personality.
When studying characters who reveal themselves, I tend to draw a circle with smaller circles within it
This technique of character revelation is used to great effect in many television series – see The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Dexter, or pretty much any half decent American show.
The key difference between these two character types boils down to the question a writer should ask when working out their journey.
In the first type you might ask simply, “How does this character change?” You can then throw everything at the character that will incite that change. Betrayal, murder, love, etc.
In the second character type you could ask, “What is this character capable of?” Then you can work out what events are going to force the character to show their true character.
Both models are perfectly valid. But is it important for a screenwriter to know which of these two models their character fits into (if at all)? If a character murders someone at the midpoint of the story, is it important for the writer to know whether the character was always capable of such an act, or whether this is something new to them.
Do your characters change or reveal their true character? Or neither?
-Joe ForrestJoe Forrest is a graduate of the Northern Film School in Leeds, England, where he specialised in documentary and screenwriting. Since graduating in 2008 he has worked as a researcher for both drama and documentary. Joe has made several short documentaries and written a number of short films, and is currently researching new projects. photo credit “Evolution”: kevindooley