Character in Character...



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  • Character in Character...

    Hi All:

    i wanted to open a discussion on character because i think often this is an element of writing that can be overlooked, misunderstood and/or neglected.

    character in character is vital to a story. this is my phrasing. pick the phrasing that works for you and go from there. what this means to me, is that your character must ALWAYS be behaving, reacting, acting and speaking through the filter of the lens you have chosen for them.

    and it must be consistent throughout the entire script. that is how you create characters that are distinguishable from one another. it is also where the unique voice of the character arises from.

    character intros are important, i think we can all agree on that. sometimes i'll see a character introduction that gives a descriptor of a character's primary weakness/flaw (a trait) but the character won't be acting or behaving or even thinking through that lens.

    every actor looks forward to their character introduction and if you say that this guy is cruel you better be showing us that trait when you intro them. and every moment after that character's actions must be focused through that lens or one of the other trait-lenses you've assigned him.

    one trait as an example:
    if you introduce a character to a reader as haughty that character is going to have a set of associated behaviors and attitudes that come along for the ride. as a writer you must understand: what it means (actual definition), the negative aspects of the trait, the positive aspects of the trait (they do have positives until taken to the extreme), how they might overcome this trait (if it has to do with their character arc), and what kind of supporting characters might align or create conflict with this character-- even if they are allies.

    then the writer must ensure that the character's dialogue, actions, reactions are all filtered through the haughty lens. basically it comes down to, what would Haughty do in this instance? what would Haughty say? how would Haughty respond? and the writer must also understand what Haughty is thinking. that's how you create character consistency. that's how you create a unique character voice.

    when writers say the character tells them what they will do, or that their character directs their own dialogue and actions, they are saying that they understand their character so well that it writes itself. of course we know the writer is still in charge.

    when you get a note or comment that says: "it doesn't seem in character." that's a queue for the writer to check themselves because the writer might be indulging in a desire to "expose" information instead of filtering it through the character's lens.

    here's an extreme example...

    you'd never hear a character who is terrified of heights say, "yeah, let's bungee off a thousand foot high bridge, man. i'm in." unless he's being sarcastic, or follows it up with, "no ****ing way." subtext in dialogue is another topic

    okay so back to traits:

    i'm using one trait in order to simplify the explanation. you could see how taking two or three traits together can amplify a character's on screen presence.

    even the worst character has positive traits, just like your hero will have negative traits. character traits can be in conflict within a character as well and this in one of the best ways to add depth to characters. this is where two characteristics are in opposition to one another.

    consider the Matt Dillon and Thande Newton characters in CRASH. Dillon is an outright racist. he doesn't hide it. doesn't apologize for it. but he is also a loyal police officer who wants to do the right thing by serving and saving people. he abuses his authority when he pulls over and gropes Newton in a stop that is based on racial profiling. he wants to **** with her and her husband. he wants to assert his authority over them and show that he is in control and they are not. but later when Newton is in a terrible car crash he must save her even thought she would rather die that have him touch her again. he MUST save her because it's his duty and his honor at stake. he values human life even as a racist. that's not all--

    because in the same film is when Dillon talks to his father's insurance handler and she happens to be a black woman. he insults her acting through the lens of being a racist, until he realizes that he's bitten his nose to spite his face because he is also a loving and devoted son doing his best to ease his father's terrible suffering, but because he is also a racist he causes his own father's continued suffering and he cannot undo what he's already been done. he tries to appeal to the handlers own sense of compassion but she's so offended by his racism, that she (acting through her lens) will not submit and forces Dillon to look at his own behavior and begin the transformation of change that helps him save Newton.

    internal conflict creates character depth. it's just one example, look to any really good film. Schindler's List that is a character in conflict, right? he's German, profiting off the war but also trying to save as many Jews in his factory as possible. he is always torn between being German and being a savior.

    i think it's possible that a writer's whose characters do not live up to their character expectations it is because the writer themself does not understand the psychology behind the trait. that's the only thing i can think of to explain why characters don't behave within their essential traits.

    writers also must understand how to communicate character emotions through their actions. your characters are going to be acting/reacting based upon emotional responses. as a writer you'll want to understand, from a physiological POV what that looks like. you'll need to understand the internal state of mind because that will determine how they take action as much as what they will say as a way to escape or diffuse the emotion.

    think about fear as an example. physiologically your heart rate increases, hands get clammy, face may turn ashen, flaring nostrils, panting or hyperventilating, you may whisper or your voice may become shrill, you may keep your back to the wall, might hide, chin quivering, rapid blinking, furrowed brow, wide eyes--

    maybe you can't speak, or move, maybe you're holding back a scream, you could be dizzy or weak-kneed, not thinking straight, panic attacks, insomnia, false bravado... all these things can be associated with this one single emotion.

    understanding the definition of the emotion as well as the physical signs, what the internal thoughts might be, and how they might react is how a writer creates an access point for the reader/audience to identify with and empathize with their character.

    okay, i think i'm tapped out now. at least this can serve as a start to the conversation about character in character.

    oh and btw, i'm not saying i'm right, these are just my opinions.
    Last edited by finalact4; 02-04-2019, 12:12 PM.
    "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso

  • #2
    Re: Character in Character...

    You can break down character/s (and their arc) into three categories

    Active character/s (initiator/s)
    Reactive character/s (responder/s)
    Passive character/s (observer/s)

    Some characters arc is defined by starting off as passive observers then becoming responders and ending up as initiators.

    Some characters start off as initiators and continue being so all the way to the end of the narrative.

    When you develop your character you constantly need to ask yourself which of the three roles your character fulfills in each act and even in each scene. For example.
    Which role does Ryan Stone fulfill in Gravity?
    (my answer -- a responder)
    Which role does Ripley fulfill in Aliens?
    (my answer -- a responder)
    Which role does Marie Colvin fulfill in Private Wars?
    (my answer -- an initiator)
    Which role does Alejandro fulfill in Secario: Day of the Soldado?
    (my answer -- an initiator)

    Writers' goal is to create the most active characters/protagonists as possible. They're the strongest one. But it turns out that there're many successful films out there that have responders rather than initiators. Possibly, at least half of the films, if not more, are primarily driven by responders protagonists.

    I'm inviting the members of the forum to provide their examples of films that had active vs reactive vs passive protagonists and see whether the majority of films have initiators or responders.


    • #3
      Re: Character in Character...

      Originally posted by ImageWriter View Post
      You can break down character/s (and their arc) into three categories

      Active character/s (initiator/s)
      Reactive character/s (responder/s)
      Passive character/s (observer/s)
      i've heard of passive (reactive - things happen to the hero) and active (hero drives the plot by taking action against) characters . i'm speaking here with respect to the main character.

      i believe that genre plays a significant role in whether protagonists are reactive or active. the genre expectations can dictate which the hero is, reactive or active.

      for example:

      THRILLER and HORROR: Bourne Identity: even though this is an action packed film it is a thriller because the protagonist, for the most part, is reactive-- he's on the run, fleeing from an antagonistic force that is chasing him.

      the same is true for The Fugitive and Alien (original) and Minority Report and War of the Worlds. and Terminator. it is typically during the back half of the second act when the protagonist must start to become somewhat active in order to save/protect a loved one and/or primarily secure their goal which is: to escape.

      horror is a classic "chased by the bad guy" and that's why the protagonist for the most part is reactive through the entire film. the goal is to escape and usually, in the very last minute the bad guy comes back to life. blame it on the sequel.

      ACTION ADVENTURE: Borne Supremacy and Aliens (sequel) and Avatar and Star Trek, Star Wars, Black Panther, Avengers, Pacific Rim Terminator 2... in all these films the protagonist(s) is active because they go after or confront the antagonist instead of the protagonist being primarily chased by the antagonist.

      the goal for action films is primarily: to STOP something bad from happening.
      "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso


      • #4
        Re: Character in Character...

        The genre does have an influence on whether your protagonist is active or reactive or to be more precise it is all about the formulas.

        For example, nearly all horror films have a reactive protagonist because the formula dictates that -- the protagonist is being hunted by the psycho (unless the psycho is the protagonist but then it may not be a horror film anymore).

        Same with disaster movies -- the protagonist is being hunted by the disaster.

        On the other hand, nearly all detective films feature an active protagonist -- the active investigator

        In dramas, the arc of the protagonist is often determined by his/her changing orientation from passive to an active or reactive character. For example, The Graduate starts with a passive character who becomes active nearly halfway into the film. Lady Bird too. Many of the coming-of-age films start with a passive character that becomes active or reactive later in the narrative.

        Some dramas are character studies where the protagonists remain passive throughout the narrative or most of it. I think Napoleon Dynamite comes close to that description.

        On the other hand, many dramas feature characters active all the way through like Miss Sloane, Wall Street, Molly's Game, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.

        Striving to have a constantly active protagonist is generally the best thing. However, in many cases, the character's journey from passive, to responsive, to active, is part of its arc within the particular narrative. Or maybe this is just an excuse to justify writing, not such strong/compelling characters.