Monday, October 09, 2006

“Characters as Individuals”

From my recent review of Rose Gibbs’ wonderful script Regular Army:

“..I have always loved studying cultures and beliefs and personalities and psychology, but yet, the human resource groups who teach these classes annoy me to no end because they do little to broaden anyone's horizon and do more to foster narrow, racist thinking with all the ways that they categorize, generalize, label, and stereotype entire groups of people. Human beings never ever fit easily into limited, compartmentalized categories. Life and truth and movies are, in fact, complicated and multi-faceted. Within any large group of people, you are going to find such a vast and unquantifiable range of personalities, beliefs, opinions, styles, etc, that it almost feels wrong to lump them all together. The only thing that connects them just happens to be that ONE THING. When it comes to everything else, frankly, all bets are off, because one cannot say that entire groups of people have certain behavioral tendencies because that's simply not true. There is not a single person I know, and I know a lot of people, who, when you really get to know them, would easily fit into the common perception of a particular group that that person might be associated with. Everyone I know is an exception. What does that mean? It means that they are, like everyone else in the world, unique individuals. More often than not, great movies are about AMAZING characters who DEFY tradition, BREAK barriers, and WOW us by their UNIQUENESS. Am I wrong...?

“Now, I do believe that you can THROUGH STORY make statements about classes, professions, etc, and illuminate problems within ethnic, cultural, political, and social groups, but you cannot ever construct A CHARACTER that's intended to represent an ENTIRE GROUP. That kind of thinking has got to go. Besides, you can tell when you're watching a bad movie that that studio has been thinking along the lines of 'here's a typical X-kind of person,' and I believe that engenders more resentment in those groups than it does appreciation. In any case, writers have to treat every character as an individual, not a stereotype. Okay, so you have a character that's gay. That's not enough. Who is this person? How can you create depth in this character through inner conflicts and believable contradictions? What is this individual's personality like? Religious, political, philosophical perceptions? Fashion? Education? Family? Integrity? Attitude? Where would that person's personality fall under the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicators? Or the DISC pattern? What's their temperament like? Does that character have any neuroses? Insecurities? What is that person's relationship like to all of the other characters and how do those relationships SERVE your overall story? How are you going to handle the Cast Design so that we get to see ALL the different sides of this particular character? You have figure this out. And you have to make sure that all of those factors have a place in your story, because it's not enough to have a character that's 'just gay.' That character has to have depth and serve a STORYTELLING FUNCTION. And on these points, I must say that Rose Gibbs is to be absolutely commended, because she so very clearly treats all of her characters as unique individuals.”


GameArs said...

I agree with your sentiments here, Mystery Man - both on stereotypes and on Rose being a wonderful writer - but at the same time, I also think there is a place for stereotypes in film.

These come in the form of those characters your protagonist will buck heads with. These stereotypes will challenge the protagonist as he/she tries to get through his/her arc.

The protagonist will ultimately learn a lesson in these encounters by seeing the ugliness of the stereotype itself. So, in the end, these simple, one-dimensional characters can act as metaphors, or stand-ins, for the stereotype itself.

The danger, as you succinctly put it, is in relying on a stereotype to carry a principal character or, to mistake character depth with stereotypical behavior.

In the other character depth discussion, Hans Gruber, we can all agree, is not a simple stereotype but the police chief, played wonderfully by Paul Gleason, is. “I hope that’s not a hostage.”

Anyone agree, disagree?

Mystery Man said...

You know, Carl, you bring up some good points. There is a lot to this topic, and I'm sure volumes could be written about it.

In the case of, say, a Kubrick film in which he's always making sociological statements, stereotypes are downright crucial in some instances. But in most movies, I guess the deciding factor has to be how much time the audience is going to be asked to be with that character. If it's somebody we're going to spend a fair amount of time with, you'll have to treat that character as an individual and create some layers.

And I think that just in the act of creating layers, you are creating an individual, someone who feels more like a real person as opposed to "oh, he's just the gay guy." Do you agree with that? I don't know if I'm making sense.


GameArs said...

Actually you make perfect sense and you said, in fewer words, what I was getting at. The characters I speak of are not the principal cast, but they are the odd character a protagonist might meet in one scene only. A coffee counter clerk, a bartender, a cop, a garbage man, a school crossing guard...

These simple, one-time characters can be made to stereotype the very thing the protagonist is trying to confront within himself.

Know what I mean?

Mystery Man said...

I do, man. That's a very good point. I totally agree with that.

Ya know, I was also thinking that stereotypes would be okay for comedies, too, and satire. Although, you CAN create some depth with charactes in comedies by constructing in that character a blind obsession or a ridiculous fixation of some sort, which in some (but not every) case would break stereotype.


Anonymous said...

As I mentioned in my blog, my best (8th grade aged Korean) student and I have started to read "The Catcher in the Rye."

Within the first paragraph alone, the sheer amount of information is conveyed about Holden Caufield. It is so precisely done, and it feels infused with absolute honesty and unique individuality.

In my travels around the world, and as I've mentioned in previously, I've been in a hell of a lot of places, the common thread that strikes me is that for the ways we group ourselves apart from one another, in the small (and not so small) details we invariably
find ways to express our common humanity.

I think that while it's okay to be aware of the labels that people themselves use, or are used to, define identity, it comes down to attention to detail, and a matter of emphasis and focus.

When it comes to the latter, consider the differences in meaning in terms of what logically should follow as the response:

HE went to the store.

He WENT to the store.

He went to THE STORE.

If you focus on the label, instead of it being an element of the whole, then I think you're making a mistake.

This is the suprasegmental element of stress that I'm planning to talk about in my blog.


Mystery Man said...

"the common thread that strikes me is that for the ways we group ourselves apart from one another, in the small (and not so small) details we invariably find ways to express our common humanity."

I completely agree! Beautifully written. And you bring up a good point, too, in that there is a common humanity, common human emotions and needs that we can all relate too, which is why storytelling is such a universal art form, and yet there is also individuality, you know, this vast network of a thousand different things internally that makes everyone think and behave differently.

I just think that all of that is so interesting, especially the inner conflicts and the contradictions and the abnormal pyschology, that... well, good God, who cares about fulfilling a stereotype? There's such a vast world of possibility, it's unquantifiable. How can you not want to explore it?


Mystery Man said...

By the way, "he went to the store" was great and you're right about considering the element as part of the whole. It also reminds me of a boss I had. When he was mad at you, he would repeat the same thing over and over again but emphasize a different word.

I'm going to KILL you.

I'm GOING to kill you.

I'm going to kill YOU.

I AM going to kill you.



Mickey Lee said...

I'm glad you made the exception for us satirists! I don't know what I would do if I wasn't able to make broad generalizations about the miserable state of humanity!

Shares Dream World said...

I just want to know why the guy went to the store three times :)

writergurl said...

Man, I'm always late to the party... Thanks for the great review, MM!

I tried very hard in Regular Army to have my main characters BE individuals since gay sterotypes are sooo pervasive in our society. "Gay" is such a negative connotation that it's even used as a perjorative, as in "That's gay." What? Let's just hope that (if RA ever gets me in front of a suit, it'll be a suit that never utters the words "typical gay".

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