The Screenwriter's Column

The Essence of Character

By Linda Cowgill

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 he¹s 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 tormentors. 

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 Under Stress

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 seedramatized 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 himself.)

What do we know of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) inAmerican 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 Oscar-worthy role.

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 girlfriend.) 

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 vividly demonstrated.

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?