Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How To Create a Compelling Character, Step 2: Contrast Their Outer and Inner Lives

A lot of this is straight out of Robert McKee’s justly-famous book, “Story”. Until McKee spelled it out for me, I didn’t realize how important contradictions are to a character. He contrasts Rambo in his sequels with James Bond. James Bond is a grimly-efficient avenger who seems to be a casual playboy. Rambo is a grimly-efficient avenger who seems to be a grimly-efficient avenger. Bond is compelling. Rambo isn’t.

Everyone sees themselves as having hidden dimensions. Everyone feels misunderstood. We identify with heroes who feel the same. Why are superheroes compelling? Because of their secret identities. Batman is another avenger/playboy. Spider-Man is a wise-cracking vigilante/ nervous nerd. Superman, when written correctly, is a super-confident savior/ humble bumbler. Buffy is a cheerleader/ vampire hunter. Wolverine doesn’t have a secret identity, but he’s still a contradiction in that he’s a rude killing-machine who is secretly sensitive and honorable. His teammate Cyclops, on the other hand, is exactly what he appears to be, a sullen do-gooder, and has never been very compelling in the comics or the movies.
Superheroes are the most extreme example, but in every genre heroes and villains become far more compelling if they contain an inherent contradiction. Dracula is an erotic monster. Frankenstein is an innocent monster. Those are both compelling contradictions. Jason, on the other hand, is exactly what he seems.
Character contradictions are important no matter what the genre, but in character studies, with small stories, they become absolutely essential, because the hero’s contradiction is often your only story hook. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden made one of the best movies of 2006, Half Nelson, about an idealistic school teacher who was secretly a crack addict. They followed it up with an entirely admirable movie about a Dominican baseball player in America called Sugar. Miguel, their main character, was in an unfortunate situation, stuck in farm teams in farm towns where he didn’t fit in, but he contained no internal contradictions. His whole personality was “lonely Dominican ball player”. It just didn’t work. Worse, even if it had worked, there would have been no way to sell the movie. “Hero teacher/ crack addict” is a hook. It makes people curious. That can sell a movie. “Dominican immigrant feels lonely” is not a hook, since it has no inherent contradiction that demands resolution. It’s just a bummer. 

Once you’ve established your hero’s characterization, how do you establish their true character, their secret honor? Fiction allows you to do this easily for a first-person narrator, since we are inside their head and can easily contrast that with their actions. But movies are actually better than prose at establishing the contradictions of multiple characters, since movies can more easily shift our allegiance. Audiences love paired scenes in which we see someone’s true character established in one scene, and then see someone ascribe false motives to them in the next scene. We love to get to know a character intimately, through watching their actions when no one else is watching them, and then feel sudden umbrage when others, who haven’t shared our intimacy, make false assumptions. This truly bonds us to a character.
Halfway through Junebug, the audience is sure that they’ll never have any sympathy for Ben McKenzie’s character, a loutish young husband who pays no attention to his pregnant wife. He is banished to the basement during his wife’s baby shower, an embarrassment to everybody. But then a special comes on TV about his wife’s favorite animal, the meerkat. He desperately tries to find a blank VHS tape to record the special. When he can’t find one, he runs upstairs to ask his wife for one. She’s normally very patient with him, but this time she decides to stand up to him and not let him interrupt. He slinks away and apologizes, without ever letting on that he was trying to do something nice for her. Now we love him. We’ve been through something with him, the sort of experience that movies are best at. We’ve seen his secret honor.

So now we know who they seem to be, and who they really are, but we still have no idea how they should talk, so let’s get to that tomorrow…


Anonymous said...

If I may be so bold, I think you may be mistaken on one point. Otherwise I found everything you said to be well thought out and true.

Rambo IS conflicted. He's a 'killing-machine' that hates to kill and is in denial that he secretly enjoys it because he's so good at it (at least until the last movie). To illustrate the point, in both First Blood & First Blood Part II he waits to do anything about being captured and tortured until he sees no other option KNOWING full well he could leave if he wanted to.

The contrast here is, he doesn't want to hurt people and yet is forever drawn to conflict. Because he has some lingering morality, he wishes to have quiet isolation and yet is attracted to violence. He's not really at peace with who he is which is what makes him interesting as a character.

On the other hand, James Bond never comes off conflicted, even if he is, he will simply and coldly execute people. James Bond by comparison is much more dogmatically straight forward a character. In his mind is his mission and all other priorities take a backseat. He'll do whatever it takes, good or bad.

Great article!

Jeremy said...

It's not that Rambo doesn't have a conflict - it's that the conflict is cliched and uninteresting.

The killing machine that just wants peace? Meh.

Similarly, the hooker with the heart of gold, or the vampire who really doesn't want to kill people, are among the least-interesting contradictions you can come up with at this late date.

This applies to Bond as well. HE can get away with it because he's the archetype, but you have to go a little bit further if you're trying to come up with a NEW playboy master spy (see: Kingsman)