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Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts Week Four Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. — William Shakespeare You may wonder why I began with the scene structure and waited to talk about character since everyone (studio executives, producers, agents) wants great “Characters.” It’s an age-old argument that coils endlessly. Does action determine character or does character determine action? The argument is futile.

Action is character. Hamlet, MacBeth, Puck, Forrest Gump, Rocky, E.T., Flipper, James Bond, Road Runner – all memorable characters. Naruto, Kabuto, Ochimaru, Sakura—children have taken to Japanese anime like bees to honey. They know each character’s look, powers, problems, etc. The great characters from literature, plays, movies, and television shows seep into our blood from the time we start leafing through picture books. Given that the media bombards us from myriad distribution devices, how do we create great characters?

Lecture Four: Character Overview: I. II. III. IV. V.

Definition of Character Character Mask versus True Character Character Types Character Development & Progression Designing an Ensemble Cast

I. Definition of Character Definition of Character:

Any entity capable of making a rational decision… …from an animated soup can to a wily dolphin to an extraterrestrial. Moreover, a human character is not a human being as we perceive him/her in real life, but the distilled essence of a human being:     

Condensed Heightened Accelerated Knowable Poetic


Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” is particularly applicable to storytelling on screen or on stage due to the tight format and the 1-3 hour time limit. There is only so much of a character and his/her life that you can show in that brief span of time and it must be believable, compelling and active.

The Iceberg Theory, an aesthetic theory put forth by Ernest Hemingway: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Iceberg off Labrador

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A good writer does not need to reveal every detail of a character or action.” “…the essence of Hemingway’s aesthetic theory which stated that omitting the right thing from a story could actually strengthen it.” In other words, a story can communicate by employing subtext and symbols.

II. Character Mask versus True Nature: Omote & Ura In Japan, omote and ura are concepts that emerged from that culture’s understanding of consciousness. Omote (lit. “front”) represents that which is “seen in front of you.” Ura (lit. “back”) represents that “which is behind or hidden.” Together they shed light on the inner circle and the ability to see what is “behind” or “hidden” from the public eye.

A Kabuki actor applies his mask…


This same dualism is seen in well developed and complex characters. The character adorns a mask in public to disguise the true self. The mask is what is known as “characterization” or all of the character’s observable qualities—physical, psychological and sociological. I have provided a flexible template to create character biographies—an important task when venturing into longer work. Please go to Course Template section to download character template. True character emerges when the mask is stripped off. And the mask dissolves when the character is forced to make choices under pressure. In times of crisis, true character pops out. Who will risk their lives to save others? Who races to the exit, pushing others aside? Who swipes expensive goods on the run? (There was plenty of looting during the attacks of 911). …and turns into an Onnagata, a female character. Major characters usually don a mask that contradicts their true inner self—a hidden dimension that emerges in times of deep crisis—or exhibit a contrasting quality that adds dimension. Marlon Brando, THE GODFATHER

Nicole Kidman, TO DIE FOR

Sir Anthony Hopkins, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Mafia boss who adores children and, evidently, cats

Sweet young thing who’ll claw your eyes out

Cultured psychiatrist and voracious cannibal

In sum, we watch characters make decisions in extraordinary situations to discover who they really are.

III. Character Types Protagonist : “agon” = struggle, the pro-side of the struggle. The main or lead character in the story. In Hollywood-speak, it’s the hero or the person we get behind. In order for the protagonist to fulfill the demands of moving a story forward to the finish, he/she must have the following characteristics:


1) Objective / Goal The protagonist has an objective or goal—an object that he/she desires, wants, needs. The desire is conscious—winning a race/match/war/trial, finding the man/woman/job of your dreams, unraveling a crime, stopping the terrorist, rescuing hostages, etc. In a complex protagonist, an unconscious desire conflicts with a conscious desire. Think: What you want may not be what you need. Or…what you say you want is not really what you want. In SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE, Jack Nicholson strives to preserve his freewheeling bachelor life when what he really wants is a committed relationship and a family. In Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche wants to start a dress shop with Stella, but what she really pines for is a total escape from reality. 2) Willpower The protagonist must have a will of iron in order to take actions in high-risk situations, surmount obstacles, and endure the consequences of his/her choices. Some of the most compelling protagonists are obsessed—a “nail in the head”— with reaching their goals and will stop at nothing to win.

A dental office X-ray reveals a four-inch nail embedded in the skull of Patrick Lawler. http://www.usatoday.com/news/offbeat/2005 -01-16-nail-skull_x.htm

“You talkin' to me?” Robert DeNiro as the obsessed Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER.

3) Capability & Skills The protagonist should have a credible combination of qualities—e.g., intelligence, resourcefulness, resilience, self-reliance, physical dexterity or strength—in the appropriate balance that allows him/her to achieve their goal. In addition, the protagonist must have or develop the skills necessary to reach the goal line. In the classic three-act film, the Hero acquires qualities, skills and insights via mentors and smaller challenges until the final battle at the climax. Luke Skywalker must be trained to use the Light Saber as well as how to marshall the “Force” to his advantage. 4) Chance to Succeed Even if the odds are overwhelmingly not in the protagonist’s favor, the power balance can’t be such that he/she has absolutely no chance to succeed. Whether it’s the loser Rocky who faces the match of a lifetime or Erin Brockovitch who confronts a monolithic corporation, the protagonist is fueled by hope and the drive to succeed. But there must always be a sliver of a chance that they will succeed. It can’t be hopeless.


5) Empathetic/Center of Good Whether or not the protagonist is likeable, he/she must exhibit one dimension that we, as the audience, can empathize with and recognize as “like us.” This dimension reveals a center of good, a nugget of shared humanity, thus allowing the audience to want to take the journey with the protagonist. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are moral and upright in conventional terms. But there is usually some positive value—e.g., love, justice or fairness--in the protagonist that we can relate to. The Hamlet Problem: When the protagonist’s conflict is internal, how do you dramatize it? Internal conflict must be revealed via the protagonist’s choices and external behaviour. Hamlet feigns madness, tests his mother, tortures Ophelia, and stages a play reenacting the poisoning of his father to determine if his uncle is guilty, and so on and so forth. Despite Hamlet’s indecision, he takes active steps to overcome his fatal flaw (hamartia)…even though it eventually seals his fate.

False Protagonist A character is introduced as the protagonist at the beginning of the story but is replaced (usually killed) at around the midpoint. Introduced earlier, a major/minor character assumes his/her place and ends the story. Ex. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.

Antagonist -- “agon” = struggle, the anti-side of the struggle. Anyone / thing / force that blocks the protagonist from achieving his/her goal. The antagonistic force may be other characters, a corporation, an entire social system, another country, nature or within the protagonist (see The Hamlet Problem), etc. Antagonism can be based on power, wealth, social status and personality differences, etc. The stakes are as high for the antagonist as for the protagonist. Hence, the antagonistic force or character should be as fascinating and multi-dimensional as the protagonist, and is superior to the protagonist until the climax. In classic three-act films, the Hero acquires skills and wisdom before he/she can go head-to-head with the antagonist in the climax and win.

Film ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST Nurse Ratchet “wins.” McMurphy is lobotomized, however the Chief escapes.




Nurse Ratchet


THE WIZARD OF OZ Dorothy wins. She destroys the Wicked Witch of the West.


Wicked Witch of the West





AMADEUS Salieri “wins.” Mozart dies, penniless and tossed into an unmarked grave. However, Mozart becomes immortal through his music. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY Terminator wins. He destroys the T-1000.

The negative, dark side of human nature—the center of evil--is as compelling (if not more so) than the light side, and usually more mysterious. Secondary Characters Aside from the protagonist and antagonist, secondary characters provide a counterpoint to the protagonist. For example, Character A brings out the compassionate side of the protagonist while Character B incites hatred. Character C elicits a wise side while Character D provokes a foolish side. Hence, the protagonist’s multi dimensions emerge due to an array of relationships that he/she has with other characters in the story. Secondary characters may be one-dimensional or multi-dimensional.

Archetypes of Secondary Characters Confidante The confidante is a character whom the protagonist or other important characters confide in…a sounding board…sometimes known in Hollywood as the exposition doormat. Ex: the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Foil / Counterpart The foil reveals aspects of the main character by facing similar circumstances but taking a different action (counterpoint) or by facing different circumstances and taking a similar action (the mirror). Examples: Hamlet. Ophelia’s brother, the brash Laertes doesn’t hesitate to take revenge when he discovers the deaths of his father and sister. His actions contrast Hamlet’s indecisiveness and passive reflection. STAR WARS. Hans Solo will lie, cheat, and steal to beat the system. In contrast, Luke Skywalker would never lie, never cheat, and never steal. Solo is Skywalker’s counterpart, the dark alter-ego.


Mentor / Confessor The mentor acts as guide and counselor, providing training and insight. Wise old man, commanding officer, traveling priest, teacher, guru, etc. Ex: Morgan Freeman in SEVEN. Rival A personal or professional rival provokes (often extreme) positive or negative traits in the protagonist. Trickster / Tempter The trickster forces the protagonist to grow and learn by either succumbing to temptation or steering away from it. Ex: Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Comic Often a side-kick or a combination side-kick/rival, the comic character provides comic relief from relentless dramatic tension and helps to vary the tone. Ex: Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Raisonneur / Author's Character The Raisonneur is a stand-in for the scribe, expounding his/her morals or philosophy (usually not the protagonist’s). In many cases, a narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. There are other archetypes of secondary characters. As you expand your storytelling vocabulary, you’ll grow accustomed to leveraging their trademark functions in your own work. Mythic Story Structure The classic three-act film structure is based on the Hero myth as put forth by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler translated much of Campbell’s text into screenplay structure in the tome, The Writer’s Journey. According to mythic structure, there are various archetypes that appear in the Hero’s journey. See table below: Examples of Character Archetypes The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler  Hero (Arthur, Theseus, Simba)  Hero  to serve and sacrifice  Shadow (Scar, Minotaur, Voldermort)  Mentor  to guide  Outcast (Cain, Ancient Mariner)  Threshold guardian  to test  Devil figure (Lucifer, Anakin/Darth Vader)  Shapeshifter  to question and deceive  Woman figure:  Shadow  to destroy o Earth mother (Mother Nature) o Temptress (Eve, Sirens, Delilah) o Platonic ideal (Dante's Beatrice) o Unfaithful wife (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary)  Wise old man (Merlin, Rafiki, Yoda, Dumbledore) For further reference, please see link to Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey in the External Links section.

Minor Characters In order to stay focused on the protagonist and other major characters, these characters are one-dimensional, flat and functional. Warning: All too often a colorful minor character can steal the show. (Ex. The Fonzie syndrome -- a minor character becomes the most popular character on the show.)


IV. Character Development & Progression As in any art form, there are various theories (often at odds) about character development and progression through the story. In many cases, treatment of character change or progression is dependent on genre or particular structure (anti-hero, episodic, ironic, etc.). Character Spine The spine of the character is: What does that character desire? Want? Need? The spine can be articulated by linking an intransitive verb with a goal:    

to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) to defeat the Japanese at Iwo Jima (FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) to attain justice for a gang rape (THE ACCUSED) to seek reparation due to damage from discrimination (PHILADELPHIA)

See Kazan’s notes below: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a faded Southern belle, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). She is horrified by the squalor of the French Quarter where they live. She is revolted by Stanley, yet attracted to him. She overstays her welcome by five months, during which she constantly attempts to break up his marriage. She tells her sister that he is common and animal like, pleading with her “not to hang back with the brutes”. Stanley takes revenge by dragging up her sordid past and stripping her suitor, Mitch (Karl Malden), of his illusions about her. He eventually rapes her, driving her over the edge into madness… …Kazan organized his notebook by descriptions of the four major characters, beginning with a statement of the “spine” of each part. He used this familiar Method term because his mentors in the Group theatre had learned it from their mentor in the late 1920s, Richard Boleslavsky of the American Laboratory Theatre, who learned it from his teacher, Stanislavski. “Spine” is used as a handy metaphor to describe two things: (1) the play’s main action and (2) a character’s main action. Kazan describes the “spine” of the four major characters in Streetcar as follows:12 Blanche wants to “find protection.” Stanley wants to “keep things his way.” Stella wants to “hold onto Stanley.” Mitch wants to “get away from his mother.” Compounded, these desires account for much of the conflict. These characters are each other’s given circumstance. In his notebook Kazan refers only to the character’s “spine,” which means the character’s “throughline.” The “throughline” is the dominant action of a character’s soul that unifies his varied activities and lends structure and coherence to the actor’s work on and in the part.


In orthodox Stanislavskian practice, the key to defining a character’s spine is to use an infinitive verb or phrase, usually with an object at the end (“to get to Moscow,” “to avenge my father’s death,” “to wait for Godot”). The verb phrase pictures a spine as “the movement of the psyche, not a passive state, like a mood,” In a dramatic role, the best kind of spine is a line that turns into an arrowit is a DESIRE. Directors in a rehearsal frequently call to the confused actor, “But what do you want?” Kazan has said; “I put terrific stress on what the person wants and why he wants it. What makes it meaningful for him. I don’t start on how he goes about getting it until I get him wanting it.” The next step in this process is to introduce the actor to “the circumstances under which he behaves; what happen before the scene begins”. This is what Stanislavski calls “the given circumstances.” (How do I as the character behave in this situation?) Kazan says, “I will say nothing to an actor that cannot be translated directly into actions. The life of a play is in behavior.”

Character Arc The step-by-step, progressive change in the protagonist and other major characters over the course of the story is known as the character arc. STAR WARS


Lies Cheats Steals Never: Lies Cheats Steals


Luke becomes more savvy in the ways of the world – his range of behaviour expands

Hans Solo gains integrity by putting selfish interests aside for the greater good – range of behaviour contracts BEGINNING


In STAR WARS, we see the Luke change from an innocent country boy to a savvy warrior. On the flip side, Hans Solo changes from a hustler and a con to a hero fighting by Luke’s side. In the case of STAR WARS, the ego (Luke) and the alter-ego (Solo) have been paired up to not only illuminate the contrast but also integrate the antithetical sides of human nature. There are various conflicting views re the “character arc.” I’ve included the opposing viewpoints in this lecture. See article by David Freeman that I’ve posted as well as the excerpt below by Lawrence Konner.


As I understand dramatic narrative, we witness characters endure meaningful and irreversible change. That change has to happen in a logical, cause-and-effect progression of steps. If the change is too abrupt, we may not accept the credibility of the change. If it happens too slowly, we may not even perceive it. Craft Excerpt: http://www.screenwriter.com/LawrenceKonnerw.html There is a term called "character arc. First of all, I dislike the term. I think it's one of those terms that has crept into moviemaking in the last decade or so. I know that when the studios were making the great movies of the golden eras past like the 30s, or the late 60s-early 70s, there was nobody asking what the character arc of anybody was. They were just telling stories about people. The term has come into use because I think people are looking for short cuts to writing screenplays and to thinking about screenplays. I think "character arc" is one of those short cuts. One of the things that happens in the books and the seminars about screenplay writing is again these short cuts. We live in a world in which more people than ever are writing screenplays. Theoretically they ought to be better just on the basis of percentage. But I don't see that they're getting better. The complaint of most studio executives is that there are not enough good screenplays and writers. What writers are lacking is not exactly clear to me; but, I think one of the things is that there are these easy solutions that people are looking for: "I'll just have a character arc and I'll just have a certain beat on page 47 because that's what the book says to do." Their material becomes more artificial. BIO IN BRIEF: LAWRENCE KONNER, Screenwriter, professor, producer. One of the Creative Directors of Sundance Film Festival, A Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Film and Television at UCLA

True Character: Journey to the Limit of Human Experience Regardless of genre or structure, the most successful and enduring dramatic narrative—plays, films and television--explore the far limits or profound depth or necessary complexity of human nature/experience. As the audience, we sense the outer limits—life’s most intense states--and hope that characters go there. We perch in front of the screen or stage to watch them take that journey. Extreme limit of human experience

Extreme depth of human experience

Complexity of human experience (PARADOX)

There are two reasons to go the distance in a story: emotional and intellectual. 1) Catharsis – The emotional pay-off of the story


See definition below: The term in drama refers to a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great pity, sorrow, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the renewal, restoration and revitalization for living. Using the term 'Catharsis' as a form of emotional cleansing was first written about by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Poetics. It refers to the sensation, or literary effect, that would ideally overcome an audience upon finishing watching a tragedy. In his previous works, he used the term in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the 'katamenia' (menstrual fluid) or other reproductive material.[1] Because of this, F. L. Lucas maintains that catharsis cannot be properly translated as purification or cleansing, but only as purgation. Since before Poetics catharsis was purely a medical term, Aristotle is employing it as a medical metaphor. "It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharsis Whether it’s to laugh or cry or be moved or terrified or delighted, we watch stories for their emotional impact. We’re not in the theatre or the cinema to be educated or lectured to… we want to be thrust into the heart and soul of the character. 2) Insight – The intellectual pay-off to the story In addition to the emotional impact, the greatest stories shed light on human nature or some aspect of the human condition. None of Shakespeare’s plots were original. He stole plots left, right and center. His genius was in his ability to capture the profound depth and complexity of the human condition via character and sublime poetry. The simplest stories are a battle between good and evil (black and white). But life is filled with paradox and often a negotiation between two absolutes (further explored in the Lecture on Theme). When we’re able to successfully dramatize extreme states or paradox via character in story, we’re exploring the grey area in life.   

Profound self discovery (depth) Extreme states of being (testing the far limits) Emergence of paradox (complexity)

In Story, McKee does a brilliant job in explaining this gray zone…where the value or status of the character reached by the end of the journey goes beyond the black and the white. (Although I have no idea how to interpret the “negation of the negation” – it’s far too abstract for me.) I’ve filled out the chart further and am trying to explain the “why.” As you can see, when the end-state of the character reveals life’s paradoxes or extreme states… you’re reaching for a bigger truth, a deeper truth, a more complex truth… about the human condition. Stories that are able to illuminate these truths usually become the classics. VALUE CHART Value Love

Contrast Indifference

Contradiction Hate

Paradox POSITIVE NEGATIVE Love disguised Self-Hate or as hate to drive Hate disguised loved one to a as Love higher good

Extreme States A B Love Hatred of extended mankind, to all Genocide mankind (holocaust (making stories)





White Lies






Necessary lie to protect the welfare of another

Self Deception

Forced to commit crimes to overthrow an unjust system (revolution stories) Regarded insane but enlightened

Forced to choose between two evils/injustices








(Blanche, Streetcar Named Desire)

Failure in public eye but won soul/life

Selling out

Jailed but free of inner demons or true to conscience

Slavery perceived as freedom

Treachery to achieve a greater good

Self betrayal




of saint stories) Tissue of lies to protect the greater good Anarchy, No laws


Fabric of lies sustained by society


Tyranny, Criminals make the laws (MISSING)

Governance by insane policies






Dual Allegiance




(Rogue cop stories)


Poor but spiritually whole

Rich but spiritually bankrupt



(redemption stories)


Unconsciousness or Superconsciousness



(disillusionment stories) (FRANKENSTEIN)

This chart may be confusing. I was confused at first. But as you study it and consider the films that had the greatest impact on you… you’ll start to understand the “why.” As you progress, fill out your own chart.

V. Designing an Ensemble Cast


In order to design a cast of characters, split the protagonist into a prism of polarities re character traits. In doing so, you will maximize conflict by setting up polarities—i.e., opposites in physical appearance, personality attributes, behaviours, beliefs, and background--between characters. For example:    

Physical variations: slim, heavy Age variations: young, old Behaviour: aggressive, meek Beliefs: athiest, devout

In WEST WING, the ensemble cast was carefully designed. The dark circles represent the shadow or alterego characters in relation to the President. Not only are polarities set up between the protagonist (President) and the rest of the ensemble, but polarities are established between secondary characters. However, all secondary characters are designed to provoke different dimensions of the President, thus creating a multi-dimensional protagonist.

Leo Chief of Staff Professorial Guarded Cynical

Josh Dep. Chief of Staff Outspoken Arrogant, Brilliant

Humble, folksy C.J. Press Sec. Tactful Unassuming

Right hook


PRESIDENT Persona – “Country lawyer with a right hook” Economics professor Father with a memory for numbers

Optimist Cheerful Toby, Comm. Director Pessimist Jewish Strong moral center

Wife Doctor Urban sophisticate (Stockard)

Zoey Daughter Going into College Innocent

Mentor Wise old man cynical

Sam, Deputy Communications Director Optimist Anglo Innocent

Charlie President’s Right hand Aide Innocent


Week Four Assignments

ASSIGNMENT A: Write a 1-page CHARACTER SPEECH using ONLY DIALOGUE. One character. There can be another character in the scene, but that character does not speak. There must be a DS, PQ and a deep need. Use stage play format. In order to sustain that amount of language, the stakes must be sky high. This is possibly one of the most difficult exercises to write. The DS, PQ and need must be revealed in the speech. Tip. Often character speeches revolve around the following motivations: 

Confession (exoneration) – Facing punishment or condemnation

Ask (pursuit) – Marriage, job (hire or fired), money, etc.

Plea (escape) – Hostage situation

Witness (rescue) – Testimony to save another human being’s life

ASSIGNMENT B: Write a 2-3 page film scene. Add DIALOGUE! Hurrah! Try and limit it to two to three characters. There must be a character speech in the midst of an activity. Break up the speech with the activity and reaction shots. See the QUILLS example. Make sure that you reveal the DS, PQ and need. Use standard screenplay format.

NOTE: Since we are not all using the same hardware or software, please make sure to post your submissions in Rich Text File or PDF. Good luck! Dakota