Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Character Depth & Cast Design

(This is a continuation of our series on Character Development Sheets, and in fact, this post covers two elements of the sheet – Character Depth & Cast Design.)


This is the section where I would map out the depth of a character. How does one create depth? By constructing contradictions in the personality. For example, a character talks one way but BEHAVES another way. Or a character ACTS one way but at his/her core, that person’s True Character is in fact, something very different. This is one area that we can thank Mr. Robert McKee for teaching us. In “Story,” he wrote: “Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.”

In any case, I would write a paragraph, usually about 300 words or fewer, chronicling the various dimensions / contradictions of a character, much in the same way that we conducted our
Character Depth study last September.

Everyone wrote such great samples. Here are three. First, our very good friend,
Pat (GimmeABreak), wrote about Hannibal Lecter:

“That a sociopathic cannibal could be brought to tears by beautiful music, recall with delight the fate of a census taker who had the temerity to disturb him, behave so tenderly toward Clarice (the finger touch as he hands her the file), take such pleasure in tormenting Miggs, salivate at the thoughts of eating Dr. Chilton, patiently explain the delicate flavor of (human) brains to a child, gently guide Will Graham toward death, and disfigure himself instead of his captor (who happened to be the only person he loves or has ever loved) makes Hannibal Lecter my nominee for the most interesting and complex character in modern cinema, the only character I've loved, feared, admired, and despised all at the same time.”

Christina Ferguson gave us a fun paragraph about Graham Dalton:

“One of my favorite movie characters of all time is Graham Dalton from
Sex, Lies and Videotape. He's an honest pathological liar. An impotent man obsessed with sex. A man who is able to know the female subjects he videotapes more intimately than their husbands, without touching them. He comes to town to obtain some measure of closure on a relationship he destroyed ten years earlier and ends up inspiring a naive woman to leave her deceitful husband, his former friend. In doing so, he redeems himself. All of this - while in dire need of a simple haircut.”

And finally, here’s a sample I wrote about
Cyrano de Bergerac:

“Cyrano is an interesting character for sure full of contradictions - on the one hand fearless of nothing and on the other terrified of rejection. He will openly mock his own nose, declare that he is proud of his great appendage, and yet, his hopeless insecurity about said nose keeps him from declaring his love to Roxanne. He is self-involved and yet selfless as he sacrifices his own happiness in order to give his love that which her heart desires most. He talks to Le Bret about refusing to be morally tainted or compromised and then Cyrano allows himself to become entangled in a great big deceptive lie to his most beloved object of desire. All the while, apart from the occasional duel, he fights for the pride of the Gascons, he fights for France, he fights a hundred men for Ligniere, he fights for everyone within reach but himself.”


Cast Design is another way to carefully construct character depth. With most stories, you have a protagonist who is basically the sun around which all of the other supporting characters rotate. But you have to carefully construct your cast design. You have to make sure that your supporting characters serve a storytelling function by having each one bring out very specific, very distinctly different dimensions out of your protag. By doing this, we get to see ALL the different sides of your leading character, right? So that, for example, your protag behaves:

* optimistic and amusing toward Character A but morose and cynical toward Character B.
* compassionate and fearless toward Character C but fearful and cruel toward Character D.


Nick said...

Great Post, MM.

One of my all time favorite contradictory character moments is in the original Die Hard:

Hans asks, "Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?"

John replies, "Yeah, I'm still here…unless you wanna open the front door for me."

Everyone knows John ain't leavin' 'til either he or all of the bad guys are dead, yet he acts as if he'd gladly rid himself of the responsibility if Hans would just let him walk.

John McClane is a study in contradiction. He's a tough guy who is afraid of flying. He is afraid, but he constantly needles his attackers with his quick New Jersey wit. He loves his wife so much he'd take on a group of professional terrorists/thieves, yet when he's with her he always pushes her away.

Good stuff.

GimmeABreak said...

" *optimistic and amusing toward Character A but morose and cynical toward Character B.
* compassionate and fearless toward Character C but fearful and cruel toward Character D."

You been playing with your Dramatica Pro again, MM? hehe

Developing the characters before beginning to write is always great fun but it's so rewarding to see them take charge of their own lives once you put them on paper. They're like unruly children in that way. You start out as a parent with the best intentions for your offspring but most of the time they do what they want to do, not what you want them to do. I can't tell you how many times I've had to rework a story because the antag does something unexpected or the protag whispers into my ear at night that he'd like to try something "this" way instead of "that" way.

p.s. I did that Hannibal profile in Sept? It seems such a short lifetime ago...

pooks said...

I must be the only person on earth who could not stay awake to read STORY. I love having somebody give me a readable (and stay-awakeable) version. Keep up the great work!

Contradiction: Scarlett O'Hara. Selfish, but when it counts, is always selfless. Ex: Most selfish woman on earth, but can't let the most insipid woman on earth die in childbirth, even when staying to help may cause Scarlett's death and if she let Melanie die in childbirth, that would free Ashley for Scarlett.

Mystery Man said...

Nick - I love "mystery" guests. Hehehe... Great comment.

Pat - I completely agree. I can't believe we did that study so long ago. That was so much fun. I love characters. That might be my favorite subject in screenwriting. I'm starting a new study on Exposition on Aug 1, which will hopefully be just as fun.

Pooks - Oh, yes, Scarlett. That crazy girl has not one empathetic bone in her body. She will compliment fellow southern belles at a ball while also stealing their men right in front of them, men she would never care about because she only loved that sappy, wimpy, little Ashley Wilkes. Ugh.