POSTS Screenwriting

Stretching the Limits of Character Identification: Self-Revelation

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An approach to overcome the negative qualities of a character is to provide him with an opportunity to reveal his real self. We generally see the social or public side of people. In everyday socializing, a person’s true feelings, true self, is concealed. Hence, if a character is a rogue, writers usually give him some charm, and we come to think of him as something of a rascal, not as an evil or totally negative person. But if he is not charming, the moment of revelation is a very useful device to gain our understanding, complicity, or tolerance for the character. If this moment is particularly unexpected, the writer can even generate empathy for the character.

A good example of this type of character is Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) in Champion. This Carl Foreman screenplay chronicles the rise and fall of a world champion boxer. In the first half of the film, we sense that Kelly is a restless, ambitious man who wants to rise above his childhood poverty. He is opportunistic at every turn. Halfway through the film, Midge talks about what it was like to be a poor boy. The humiliation he suffered remains a vivid scar, and at that moment, we begin to forgive, or at least tolerate, his cruelty to those closest to him.

In Blame it on Rio, Matthew Hollis (Michael Caine) takes a vacation with a divorced friend and their teenage daughters. Matthew’s marriage is foundering, and he takes solace in his friend’s daughter. The affair that follows is kept from his friend but not from his own daughter. Matthew is not an admirable man in this Charlie Peters–Larry Gelbart script, but the writers give Matthew many moments of revelation. From the beginning of the film, Matthew begins to confess directly to us, and this continues periodically throughout the fi lm. The result is that we tolerate his character.

Another approach to the moment of revelation is taken in True Believer, Edward Dodd (James Woods), a famous civil rights lawyer of the 1960s, is now a lawyer primarily for drug dealers. His moment of revelation comes when a new assistant, Roger Barron, chastises him for not taking on a controversial murder case. He is no longer the man whom Barron traveled to New York to work with. This is a humiliating moment for Dodd, who is hungry for the glory and publicity of those early days and now has to settle for less idealistic clients. We learn about Dodd’s past and we sense who he was. Can he be that person again? Until this point in the story, Dodd is presented as a mesmerizing speaker in court but as a lawyer who has fallen from grace. He has talent but conviction without idealism seems ignoble. Can Dodd once again be noble? Although he is energetic, it is not possible to sympathize or empathize with him. Only when we learn who he was do we hope that he can recapture his idealism.

A moment of revelation is important for a less-than-sympathetic main character and is a device writers often use to involve us with character. These moments can also apply to more than just the main character. Virtually all the characters in John Patrick Stanley’s Moonstruck have their moments of revelation, and the three key characters in David Mamet’s Things Change have their moments as well. It is important to remember that the moment of revelation is very often associated with a story point in which the characters have undergone a humiliating experience. When they are vulnerable, they reveal their private sides. Then, whether saint or sinner, we are hooked by the character.

Excerpt from Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula, 5th Edition by Ken DancygerJeff Rush © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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