Character

ALTERNATIVES

Alternatives, or opposites, are perhaps the single most important aspect of a character's make- up. The use of opposites heightens character traits. Without intermittent valleys to establish that they are indeed peaks, sustained peaks become plateaus. Plateaus become monotonous and tend to erase the traits the writer had intended to establish. A character who is vehemently angry throughout the story becomes extremely difficult to watch. His behavior no longer means anger to the reader/viewer, it just annoys him.

  • punctuating an angry man's tirades with laughter, or puzzled wonder, or quiet serenity, makes his rageful eruptions even more scary
  • giving a jovial man dark brooding moments heightens the ups
  • making a courageous soldier tremble for one moment in the story makes him seem more brave when he needs to be
  • tossing a little levity into a seriously patriotic speech helps relay the message

For a bit of surprise, a character can be set up in one direction throughout the movie, then, at a critical point in the story, behave in a manner completely at odds with his purported nature.

Actors will be more inclined to perform characters, directors more desirous of directing characters, and readers/viewers more likely to be fascinated by characters who have distinct opposites. A script already written can be enhanced greatly by going through and giving characters opposites where they might not have had them before.

Humor may result . . .
  • as an executioner raises up his axe we see he's wearing pink rabbit slippers
  • a minister of God slips into a porn shop
  • a professional wrestler cries at a mawkishly romantic movie
  • a dainty woman in high heels karate chops a mugger

A recently popular U.S. television show used character opposites to great effect, both in making a lovable character, and in making a character an actor loved to play--something any screenwriter should want.


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EXERCISES:
  1. Review the Charles Laughton classic The Night of the Hunter (1955) with Robert Mitchum. Consider how he mixes menace with charm. How does this acting approach contribute to the sense of horror?
  2. View the adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility (1995) with Hugh Grant. Consider his character's cringing weakness throughout the film. How does this affect you?
  3. What is the most notable characteristic of almost every character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)? What were the character opposites written into George Clooney's role? How well did he portray them? What was lost or gained?
  4. View the Michael Caine film The Statement (2003) about a former Nazi collaborator escaping capture. Consider the level he plays the entire film. How does this strengthen or weaken his portrayal?
  5. View the coming-of-age film Thirteen (2003). What makes that such an effective title? Why is the girls being thirteen so important to the story? What divide (or breakthrough) does this represent? Why is the age chosen particularly important for females? How different would the movie be if it had been called 'Sixteen'?
  6. Review the classic The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). What power is generated in the story by holding the central character's age constant in parallel with an aging world? What can we learn about the importance of age?