Well developed characters are one of the most important elements of a great film. What happens in a film (the plot) is only made more interesting by the way the various characters react to these events. Developing excellent characters is one of the hardest challenges in film making, so make sure you spend a lot of time analysing what makes your favourite characters so interesting. Think how dull Silence of the Lambs would be without Hannibal Lector or Claris Starling.
In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the genius of the film is in Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, and his rebellion against the world – in particular his clash with Nurse Ratched. For all their flaws and indiscretions, the patients in the mental hospital are so beautifully rendered we can’t help but feeling for them.
Narrative film making centres on following the story of a single main character (also known as the protagonist). Although there are no rules for creating great characters, it has been noted that the main characters in many successfully films have exhibited a want and a need, along with certain character flaws or conflict that prevent them from achieving their goal.
The character’s want is generally what they think they want, where as the need is what they actually want to achieve. With the film Memento, the protagonist Leonard Shelby wants to find who is responsible for the death of his wife and take avenge his killing. However, he has a deeper need to overcome his problem of chronic short term memory loss. With this film, the major character flaw preventing him achieving this goal is his chronic memory loss! Roy Scheider’s character in Jaws suffers from a fear of water, similarly with Vertigo, the James Stewarts character’s severe vertigo is a major hindrance. With the film Trainspotting, many of the characters suffered the same flaw - a heroine addiction.
The character flaw is usually the main obstacle holding back the protagonist. It is common for such flaws to be realised and confrontation during the final act of the film.
The eponymous character in Amelie has a clearly defined want and need. Amelie wants to do good deeds for people, however her actual want is to find love, but as a delicate dreamer, she finds it hard to express her feeling, until she finds someone equally sensitive. Amelie is such a beautiful film, and Jean Pierre Jeaunet’s commentary track on the DVD is an excellent incite into his film making style.
Whilst creating characters, you will often find your protagonist is essentially a reworked version of yourself, or an idealised version of yourself. Envisaging what it would be like to be in the same position as your characters and how you would react to your environment and the conflict you come into.
Tags: screenwriting, characters, protagonist