Saturday, September 30, 2006


All right, guys, let's have some fun, shall we?

I want to do a new study on the fine art of CHARACTER DEPTH.

I hear you chanting out there – “BRING IT ON!” Hehehe… Yeah, well, if you think you’re so smart, let me tell you – this is a study for advanced students. Mystery Man doesn’t waste his time with advice-for-wimps like “3 Simple Tips to Make Your Characters Unique.” This isn’t “Creative Screenwriting Magazine.” WE are going to dive into the DEPTHS of the most complicated characters that ever lived on film. Are you guys with me? Because this is the stuff I live for…

Okay - one could do a gazillion studies on characters. However, I want to focus on 2 very specific ways of looking at depth:

* Contradictions in the Character
* Depth through Cast Design

Did you get that? Contradictions in the Character. Depth through Cast Design. Now I want you to say it out loud with me: “Contradictions in the Character. Depth through Cast Design.” Okay?


As I’m sure all of you fanatical students of screenwriting know, one of the ways you create depth is by constructing contradictions in the character. 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. On these points, McKee 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.”

The problem is that McKee only gives ONE EXAMPLE:

Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written. Hamlet isn’t three-dimensional, but ten, twelve, virtually uncountably dimensional. He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone hiding behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent wordliness, a worldy innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.


Here’s another angle in which we can focus on the multi-dimensions of a character. I’ve talked about this in my reviews on TriggerStreet for some of the more advanced scripts. 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.


I invite you to email me ONE, SHORT PARAGRAPH describing one character with depth. It can be any character from any movie - past, present, Hollywood, Bollywood, I don't care. I want the paragraph to be fewer than 300 words (yes, that’s short to me). I want you to articulate in your paragraph the CONTRADICTIONS in that character and/or how that character is fully fleshed-out by the way he/she behaves DIFFERENTLY toward all the other characters. This can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You can talk about one simple contradiction in a character or dive into all the multi-contradictions of a character like Hamlet.

My posts on character depth are going to be short. No more lengthy introductions, just a quick link to your blog (or profile on TriggerStreet) and then we’re going to dive right into the analysis of your character. I’m also going to be more strict about the submissions I receive than I was with our subtext study. Don't give me scenes. I want one, short descriptive paragraph. You MUST follow the guidelines I gave you.

Now, here’s an example of what I’m looking for. This is something I wrote in a review of an adaptation of 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. In the play, he talks to Le Bret about refusing to be morally tainted or compromised (sadly missing here) 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.”

Let the revolution begin.

OH! I almost forgot. You can't touch Michael Corleone. He's mine. I'm going to write about him on Monday. Hey, this is MY study...




wcdixon said...

"Bang! And they're off! MM is first to the corner but followed closely by Unk and Mernitman..."

I'm presently watching 'Fantastic Four' with my kids...hmmm... character depth through cast design/superpowers and the contradictions in the character of Von Doom - okay it's not Hamlet...but they can't ALL be Hamlet...

Anonymous said...

But creating a character with depth isn't as easy as throwing in a bunch of contradictions. Each facet of the personality has to make sense within the context of that character's life, or backstory.

People can be contradictory, but once you learn what pushes their buttons, you can usually predict what they will do in any given situation.

So don't forget that any trait your characters exhibit is a button that leads back to a reason.

Mystery Man said...

Dix - Hehehe...

Miriam - I agree! As I said, there are a gazillion studies one could do on characters and to concentrate ONLY on contradictions has its pitfalls. Everything requires a careful mastery. It's never as simple as anyone might think.

But contradictions are SO MUCH FUN.



Mystery Man said...

Hey, Jutra! It's great to hear from you, man.

I LOVE Tony Soprano ESPECIALLY because of the wide variety of contradictions in his character. SO much fun. I'm tempted to start listing them all. However, I will refrain myself, because on Monday, I'll be blogging about Michael Corleone. And I'm sure we'll see many similarities.

(All I've got to say is that they better not screw up the final season!)

Carl S said...

I sent a thought in for this blog this morning and am keeping the topic in mind as I come to the end of a new script. I want to examine my characters when I read back through it to see if these complexities exist or not.

Mystery Man said...

That's my boy, Carl! Good for you! That's exactly what I want to hear!