Editor’s Note: To coincide with our monthly Elements of Cinema series, we will periodically present essays discussing various aspects of filmmaking.
When an audience member walks away from a critically successful film and says, “Those characters talk and act like real people,” you should know that you’ve just witnessed a magician’s trick.
There’s a difference, of course, between people and characters. Characters are witty. Characters act, and when they do, it’s always in extremes. In real life, we sit in the coffee shop and think about asking out the barista. A character not only asks out the barista but also does it in the most awkward, cringe-inducing way imaginable. In real life, we wish we could avenge ourselves on an ornery boss. A character avenges herself in spectacular fashion, but always with unintended, typically disastrous consequences.
Furthermore, characters transition. They start in one place and end in another, and on multiple levels. There’s the plot; you start in your little village and have to traverse fen and forest, battle and death to make it to your enemy’s dark citadel. Then there’s the internal journey—the theme. Will you become a better person? Will you find your courage? Will you stand for something other than yourself? Will you make the wrong choice for the right reasons? Or vice-versa? That’s engaging. That’s why we go to see films in the first place. Change through conflict is interesting, and that’s what good visual storytelling is all about.
Do all characters transition? No. James Bond and Indiana Jones, with rare exceptions, never really end a film differently from how they began it. But the most compelling characters do. Or at the very least, they’re challenged to change throughout. Characters like PATTON’s eponymous general, CITIZEN KANE’s eponymous citizen, or THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s Mark Zuckerberg are given ample chances to change their behavior throughout the narrative. Their inability to change dooms them to varying degrees of solitude or repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Regardless of whether or not the change is front and center, the events in a script must absolutely wear your characters down.
Characters also need to possess a spine. This is shorthand for a character’s motivation, action, and goal—both over the course of an entire narrative as well as scene-by-scene. What does a character want, why do they want it, and what does he or she do to attain it? Sitting and thinking is for your novel or your radio play. Characters act in every scene. Period. Ideally, the film’s central conflict will be the most difficult task your character has ever attempted to accomplish. The stakes must be sky-high, unless we’re dealing with an out-and-out comedy. The cost of failure for your protagonist must be dire, and if they don’t act, the results will be (for them) a fate worse than death.
Films are about relationships, and a good protagonist will change everyone around him or herself, and not always for the better. There’s a difference between watching and being invested in a film, and a writer always wants an audience to experience the latter. Remember that old adage about how you learn the most about someone while seeing them perform under pressure? That goes a hundredfold for visual storytelling. Conflict is the single greatest weapon at a writer’s disposal to both move the story forward and reveal more about character, a concept that UCLA screenwriting co-chair Richard Walter calls integration. Every line, action, scene, and film as a whole needs to perform both of these tasks simultaneously. Conflict must be packed into every nook and cranny of your script, otherwise the plot pauses and it’s dead in the water.
To sum up, films are about becoming, not being. This is a key concept that the original STAR WARS trilogy possessed but that the new trilogy and even THE MATRIX franchise lost along the way. Luke has an emotional journey to begin in A NEW HOPE, to continue in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and to conclude in RETURN OF THE JEDI. In contrast, his father Anakin is whiny and narcissistic in THE PHANTOM MENACE, whiny, narcissistic, and homicidal in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and whiny, narcissistic, and genocidal in REVENGE OF THE SITH. His character doesn’t evolve. He merely is, and that’s boring.
Similarly, in THE MATRIX, we see how a man transitions from Mr. Anderson to Neo. He’s told at the outset, “When you’re ready, Neo, you won’t have to dodge bullets.” It’s a fascinating transition to behold. But at the end of the first film, he’s already there! He’s flying, not-dodging bullets, and fully capable of being the savior he never thought he could be. The second and third films in the franchise trip up because they’re about a character who has nowhere else to go, emotionally. He has nothing left to learn. He’s already willing to put it all on the line by the end of the first film. What’s left for him to do? The films are stunning as eye candy, but it’s style over substance, and audiences are smart enough to figure it out.
Drama flows from character, not the reverse. Just as we desire, so must our characters. But they go the extra thousand miles. Write on!