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Thinking in Character

May 9, 2007

Movies that are driven entirely by plot, sensation, extravaganza or, God-forbid, special effects, is almost certainly doomed to failure. Think of Godzilla, Independence Day, Alien vs. Predator, Waterworld, Ishtar, Treasure Planet, Alexander, Battlefield Earth, Cleopatra, Zathura, Daylight, Gigli, The Alamo, Hudson Hawk, The Red Planet, King Arthur, Judge Dredd, Howard the Duck, The Island and almost every movie directed by Michael Bay. These are all movies that have the happy distinction of being box-office bombs.200px-the-island.jpg

Even great directors make huge bombs. Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead and The Gangs of New York are considered failures. Even my hero Ridley Scott can crank out a good bomb, though spectacular they are. Just look at Kingdom of Heaven.

“The whole thing is, you’ve got to make them [the audience] care about somebody”
–Frank Capra

If we don’t care for the main character, we won’t care for the story, because story is character.The great screenwriter, Ron Bass, said, “Story is what happens as characters interact.” Story proceeds from character.

When we get this backwards, where story is imposing action upon the character, then the character is the pawn of the story, and it really doesn’t matter what character is under the hammer of the story. The vast majority of the movies listed above either have characters we don’t care about, or characters who contribute nothing to the story. Placeholders make terrible characters.

In the first season of the overblown series ’24’, Jack Bauers wife Teri was supposed to be a significant part of raising the stakes as her life was in danger. Her acting was atrocious, unbelievable and her character was far from sympathetic. I was hoping she would die soon, just to get rid of her. Unfortunately, my reaction was far from the intent of the writers and actress, Leslie Hope.

200px-casablancawillis.jpgCharacter births story. Character guides plot. If we take Casablanca, for example, and trade Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) for John MacClane (Bruce Willis character in Die Hard) we will have a very different movie. John MacClane would respond to the conflict of Casablanca much differently than Rick Blaine does, and so the story would have to be completely different than the Casablanca with Rick for the story to work. This is what is meant by the term ‘character-driven’ story. The only story worth watching is character-driven.

With this in mind, actors and animators must create believable performances in such a way that their characters are driving the story. They are feeling the pressures, wrestling with the conflicts, being hurt, confused, scared, hopeful, resolved, and knocked off balance. Their words, their every move is spawning the story. They make decisions that guide the plot, that escalate or resolve the conflict. Their interactions with others, their plans, their responses, their emotions, their reactions are shouldering the main load of the story.


So there are questions you must have answers for as you create performance, as you use these tools of story.

What does my character want? What is keeping him or her from getting it?
How does my character relate to the conflict in the scene?
How does my character’s thought process change throughout the scene?
How does my character feel about and react to the new obstacle they are facing?
How can I best show these things in the performance?

The more you can root your character’s performance in their personality and emotional state in dealing with the conflict, the truer, and more memorable your performance will be.

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