POSTS Screenwriting

Building Character

Paul Lucey, in his very fine book on screenwriting, Story Sense, states that one of the main tenets of his dramaturgy is, “Write simple stories and complex characters.”

Although film takes place in the present, character is created in the past. Character is everything that has gone into the making of our characters before they stepped into our fi lm: genetic inheritance, family influence, socioeconomic conditions, life experience, and on and on. Of course, some influences are more relevant to our stories than others, and we should limit ourselves so that we do not become bogged down with the nonessential. Keep this analogy in mind: A film is like a train ride in which characters embark on their journey with just enough baggage for that trip.

Photo by Eleoth

There is an often-told story concerning character that bears repeating here. A frog was sitting by a river swollen by a recent flood, when a scorpion came up to him. “Mr. Frog, the river is much too wide for me to cross. Could you please take me across on your back?”

“Oh, no,” replied the frog, “when we get to the middle of the river, you will kill me with your sting.”

“Why would I do that?” asked the scorpion. “If I killed you, you would sink to the bottom and I would drown.”

The frog had not thought of that scenario, but it made perfectly good sense. “Okay,” said the frog, “hop on.”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Frog,” said the scorpion as he hopped on the frog’s back.

The frog was a strong swimmer, and in no time at all they reached the middle of the river, but still much too far for the scorpion to walk to the other side. Nevertheless, the scorpion stung the frog with his stinger. As the frog began to die from the poison, and the scorpion began to drown because he had lost his ride, the frog asked incredulously, “Why? Why did you sting me?”

The scorpion replied, “It’s my character.”

We are familiar with complicated film characters: Guido in 8½ (Fellini, 1963), Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Rick in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Michael in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Blanche and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951), John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Fiona in Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006), and Pierre Peders and Katya in Interview (Steve Buscemi, 2007).

The character studies in Kazan’s Director’s Notebook on A Streetcar Named Desire are brilliant not only in going to the central core of the character but in uncovering the undulations and modulations of that core that make the characters so compelling to watch. This psychology unearthed by Kazan prior to working with the actors points the way to behavior that will ultimately make the psychology available to the audience. This point is made paramount in Kazan’s fi rst note to himself: “A thought—directing fi nally consists of turning Psychology into Behavior.” The most complicated character in the play/fi lm is Blanche, and Kazan pushes himself in the Notebook to discover all of the varied layers of her personality. “Try to fi nd an entirely different character, a self-dramatized and self-romanticized character for Blanche to play in each scene. She is playing 11 different people. This will give it a kind of changeable and shimmering surface it should have. And all these 11 self-dramatized and romantic characters should be out of the romantic tradition of the Pre-Bellum South.”

No director has ever been more attuned than Kazan to the idea that everything the director does is aimed at affecting the audience. Again, his Notebook:

The audience at the beginning should see her [Blanche’s] bad effect on Stella, want Stanley to tell her off. He does. He exposes her and then gradually, as they [the audience] see how genuinely in pain, how actually desperate she is, how warm, tender and loving she can be . . . how frightened with need she is—they begin to go with her. They begin to realize that they are sitting in at the death of something extraordinary . . . colorful, varied, passionate, lost, witty, imaginative, of her own integrity . . . and then they feel the tragedy.

Kazan’s exhaustive investigation of character not only deals with the past; he also projects (in the case of Stanley) into the future: “He is adjusted now . . . later, as his sexual powers die, so will he: the trouble will come later, the ‘problems.’ He’s going to get very fat later.”

Excerpt from Film Directing Fundamentals: See Your Film Before Shooting by Nicholas Proferes © 2008 Taylor & Francis Group.  All Rights Reserved.

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