Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Good v. Bad Character Development

Last weekend, I watched the remake of Evil Dead. It sucked. Actually it beyond-sucked. It uber-sucked. Basically, they took a quirky and strange cult classic, sucked out all the parts people liked, and then tried to turn the husk that was left into the world's goriest slasher flick. Pointless. Anyways, the intro of the film made me realize something about character development.

It is the rare story that interests us when we don’t care about the characters in some way. And by “care,” I don’t mean “love.” What I mean by “care” is that we become interested in the characters to the point that we develop an emotional interest in seeing what happens to them. That emotion can be either positive or negative. Indeed, some of the most interesting stories have involved characters we dislike intensely and want to see fail.

To achieve this, films rely on character development. This usually involves using the first few minutes of the film to give you a glimpse of who these characters are so that you can find something about them that you can sympathize with or which appeals to you. This can be as little as having a character tell you the traits of the other character, such as a politician calling Dirty Harry a dinosaur and threatening to stop his violent ways, to spending whole scenes with characters acting out parts of their back-stories, like watching a priest visit his dying mother in a hospital for the poor.

A classic example of how this is done really well comes from Pulp Fiction. As the story of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta opens, they are driving to a hit. As they drive, they talk. They let you know that Travolta has just returned from Europe and they talk about an incident involving their employer and a foot massage, and they argue over whether or not the employer overstepped his bounds. This scene is brilliant. It sets up who these characters are, both in terms of personality and profession. It establishes their friendship, but also establishes the boundaries of that friendship and where they disagree on principles. That then becomes the conflict that drives their interactions throughout. It also let's you see how utterly calm and cold-blooded they are about the murderous deed they have been sent to perform. This scene also sets the mood of the film. It tells you that the film will be deliberate, it will be about side-stories and distractions, and that it will be told through quirky dialog about street-philosophy.

And what makes all of this work, i.e. what keeps this from feeling like filler or spoon-fed characterizations, is that the whole time, they are working their way toward their objective. In other words, the scene builds its tension from the fact that these two hitmen are on their way to kill someone, and we accept the irrelevant conversation because it seems incidental to what we are watching (even though it isn't). By comparison, if they were just sitting around talking and the scene ended with them then heading out to start their mission, this scene would feel like filler and would lose much of its tension and interest.

Now compare this to Evil Dud. The story begins with the characters arriving at a cabin in the woods. They are here to help break one of the female characters of her drug habit. Notice right away that they have already arrived and are now just sitting around waiting for the plot to begin. Moreover, the story of her drug use will have nothing to do with the plot itself as this story is not about her breaking a habit, it is about something completely unrelated that only starts after they finish yapping. For the next ten minutes each of the characters talks about their past dealings with her and her struggles. Unless you are a recovering drug addict, none of this will be interesting to you -- compare that Travolta and Jackson talking about McDonalds, nasty bosses, affairs, and foot massages... all very relatable. Note also that you don't have to like either Travolta or Jackson to be interested in what they are discussing, whereas you really do need to like the drug addict girl to care about her plight. This bodes poorly for Evil Dud even before the first word is spoken.

Then the real problem arises. As you watch these idiots whine about their friend for ten minutes, you feel your patience grinding to a halt. You know this isn't relevant to the story. You know they are filling time, hoping that you find something to like about their characters. This is because there is nothing else going on except them talking about their own characters. And you realize that the director could have conveyed the whole ten minute spiel in a single line of dialog during a better-written scene. Travolta and Jackson, by comparison, are steadily building tension by preparing to kill someone at any moment. And I think that is the real key here. Jackson and Travolta don't bore you because you are focused on their task and you get the feel of constant progress on the plot. By comparison, the Evil Dud crew have literally stopped their movie to chat. Had they given you this same information while playing with a Ouija Board or even done it while the characters were approaching the cabin and discussing the witchcraft history they were about to encounter, then you could have excused this. But they didn’t.

I really am thinking this is the key to how to avoid characterization feeling like filler. As I think about film after film I’ve seen, the good ones make sure that the characters are engaged in the plot as they engage in character development; the bad ones stop the plot so the characters can focus on character building.

Thoughts?

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Like watching a priest visit his dying mother in a hospital for the poor." Then,in a scene that only lasts a few seconds and has no dialogue,watching the pain and frustration in that priest's eyes while he pounds the shit out of a heavy bag.
Like watching a down and out boxer walk a 12 year old girl home and try to give her some advice,only to have her say "Screw you creepo." And then to watch him say to himself,"Yeah creepo,who are you to be giving somebody advice?"
Scenes that hook you. Scenes that draw you into the character and make them real to you. The emotional investment in the characters makes the difference between a movie you sit down and watch every time it's on and something you play for background noise.
GypsyTyger

Dave Olson said...

Consider Die Hard. (Yes, I keep going back to that well. But it's one of the best movies ever made and the only reason snobby critics don't rank it up there with The Wizard of Oz or North By Northwest is that they dismiss it as a mindless action flick with some hack TV actor as the lead.)

Deep breath.

Anyway, as I was saying: Die Hard. We get glimpses of John McLane as he rides to the Nakatomi building in the front seat of the limo. We can see that he's a regular Joe by his seating choice, and we can all relate to his marital problems. We're on his side before he even gets on the elevator. Later, as he argues with his estranged wife, we stay on his side because he seems to be trying to keep his family together. We even like Holly to some extent. There's a fine line between a bitchy woman and a steely woman, and Bonnie Bedelia roller-skated down that divide with her last words in the fight: "I know EXACTLY what your idea of a marriage should be!" I fell in love with her as I cringed in my seat when I first saw that scene.

The doomed Mr. Takagi was similarly well-developed. He was the classic immigrant success story that has made America great. Even internment in the wartime camps didn't stop him from reaching the top.

Then of course, there's The Phantom Menace. There's no real development in any of the main characters. If you hadn't seen the original trilogy (dozens if not hundreds of times), you wouldn't know what a Jedi is, what they do, or why you should care about that whippersnapper with the rat-tail named Obi-Wan.

Anonymous said...

And that's the reason it's so important that Han fired first. It is absolutely essential to his character. Anybody at all can defend themselves. Greedo was there(bear with me,it's been a long time since I've seen Star Wars. The character of Boba Fet(?) hadn't been introduced yet but it was clear that Han was heavily in debt) to either kill Han or turn him over to people who would kill him , I can't remember which. Han knew what Greedo was there for,he knew that talk wouldn't work,so he did what he knew was necessary. That seen was critically important because it established Han as the cynic,as opposed to Luke,who was the idealist. That made Han's return to the battle to save Luke at the end all the more satisfying because Han had been established as someone who would do whatever he had to do to save himself.That he left a position of safety and came to save Luke was all the more satisfying because of the character that he'd been established as.
Remember that scene? Skywalker all alone. Darth Vader's hand on the lever. "I have you now." Then Vader's ship blown off course and the cut to Han whooping. That made the film. Who was going to save Luke? Obi-Wan was gone. Luke being saved by Han was so much more satisfying because not only was Luke saved and the Death Star destroyed but the cynic was converted to the cause.For all their polyester faults 1970s Americans still had the ability to realize that you can fire first and still be a good guy. Dammit!
And Dave, I just want to say that as far as your opinion of Die Hard goes you're absolutely right. A true classic in every sense of the word. Critics are sheep.
GypsyTyger.

Anonymous said...

Damn! "scene", not "seen." Oops. :)
Gypsy

ScottDS said...

Dave -

I forget if I mentioned it in my Die Hard review but, IMHO, John McClane sitting in the front seat of the limo is a GENIUS piece of character development. We find out everything we need to know in one shot.

You might be interested in film historian Eric Lichtenfeld's book Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, available here. The guy's a fan and takes the first serious look at the genre.

tryanmax said...

It sounds almost as if Evil Dud was written for the stage, like the writer didn't know you could do stuff while traveling, or even travel at all. I wonder if that's a trap a lot of screenwriters fall into?

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Exactly. It's moments like that that build real character. In just a quick shot that only takes a few seconds you suddenly know something deep about the character. And they don't feel like false character building because they don't involve the characters standing around describing their own characters.

Kit said...

Interestingly, the original Evil Dead didn't really bother much character with development other than they are all college kids and "She's Bruce Campbell's girlfriend".

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Exactly. Die Hard fills us in on the characters as it builds the plot and when it does, it does so subtly. You learn who these people are based on the way they respond to the pressure they are under -- being it an argument or a death threat. By comparison, in Evil Dud, you literally just have four people sitting around telling you what their characters are supposed to be.

Phantom Menace and indeed each of the prequels is a classic of how not to do it. Anything we're supposed to know about those characters they tell us... they tell us very blatantly. "I love her so much." "You are to reckless." "We are friends." Those films sound more like someone is outlining a film than giving dialog.

It's the same thing with Evil Dud. "We are here to help her overcome her addiction." "You know she will say anything to get out of this, you can't trust her." "I know, but we love her." "Yes, she's a great friend." "Oh, and I have been assigned a personal conflict with you too. Here is my beef." It's that bad.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Agreed on Han. Without that moment you don't have the self-centered cynic who will decide he needs to do something selfless at the end. It's vital to the character.

I do agree about Die Hard too.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, True. The one moment tells you that he's a "common man/down to earth type" who is not comfortable surrounded by wealth and being treated as if he's somehow superior to others. It also tells you that he's not going to surrender to convention, i.e. he has a strong character. It makes him instantly likable.

Kit said...

Andrew,

Did you see Mr. Plinkett's review of The Phantom Menace? At one point he asked four people to describe the original trilogy's C-3PO and Han Solo and the prequel's Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar without mentioning what they looked like or their jobs,. The first two were easy, the latter two... not so much.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Having written a lot, it's interesting to me how much you can change a scene simply by (1) adding motion and (2) by converting description to dialog. It makes a world of difference, but you have to know to look for it because what you've written doesn't look wrong, it's just not as strong as it could be before you change it. And I suspect that a lot of writers are just blind to this. Basically, I would bet the writer just never thought about integrating the opening dialog into some sort of action scene -- like travel or them playing with a Ouija board.

Lucas is again a great example of this. He focuses on one thing at a time... travel, fight, now speak. He should be combining those for much better results. But for whatever reason, he focuses on one thing only per scene.

PikeBishop said...

RE: The Pulp Fiction character development: The more I look at that scene the more I get the feeling that Jules and Vincent had just met and this was "getting to know you" conversation. From context clues in the film, Marcellus has a pretty big organization and you probably would not know every member. I get the feeling they met just before they got into the car.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The original Evil Dead didn't have much plot or much in the way of characters -- kids go to cabin and start fighting supernatural forces. What they did do though was put the explanation of who these people are in the initial drive up, so it feels natural, it doesn't feel like it stops the plot. Then they filled in the rest with the character's reactions to what they are facing throughout. The remake is devoid of even that -- basically it's just fight/running/creepy scenes after the thing starts.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I did see that. It was an interesting experiment that really does ring true.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, It's possible. I can definitely see the conversation supporting that. But keep in mind that the scene in the diner strongly suggests that they've know each other for some time and are quasi-friends.

Anonymous said...

Kit; I did see that Mr. Plinkett review and it was hilarious.
GypsyTyger

Rustbelt said...

Kit, have your pizza rolls from Mr. Plinkett's webzone arrived yet?

Mine haven't and I'm getting hungry.

wahsatchmo said...

I actually bought Red Letter Media's Feeding Frenzy because I liked their reviews so much. It's as you'd expect: wonderfully stupid. But their efforts in deliberate half-assed characterization are far better than anything in the Star Wars prequels.

Koshcat said...

Although I haven't been conscious to it, I can see better why I like some movies better than others. The other great part about the Pulp Fiction scene is that their conversation is somewhat mundane if taken out of context. But they seem like regular business guys out to run some work errand. It is so opposite on how they act in the apartment. It actually makes their characters scarier. They can turn it on then turn it off. How would you ever pick these guy out in public. Quentin shows the danger of this later in the diner when the robbers screw with the wrong guys.

"It's the one that says 'Bad Ass Motherf**ker'".

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, I've wanted to support them as well because I really like what they've done.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Exactly. That is excellent writing -- it has layers. You learn about their jobs, their lives, their relationship, their limits. It sets up the issue with the boss that will hang over everything. And the whole time, it takes something mundane, but interesting, and it pulls you in to make you really like the characters before you see how vicious they really are. And that is scary that they seem to be able to turn it on and off so easily -- very psychopathic. Yet, despite being psychopathic, you already like them, so you go with them. If the film opened with them blasting away, it would have had a very different feel.

And yeah, the diner really makes you realize that you have no idea who anyone around you really is.

Kit said...

"Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was the most disappointing thing since my son." -Mr. Plinkett

Kit said...

Those Mr. Plinkett reviews, especially the Phantom Menace one, is basically Storytelling 101.

Anonymous said...

Great article and the funny thing is that I watched Pulp Fiction on TV last night, I just realised it was on and changed the channel just as that scene started. It is a great scene and the introduction to the two characters is great, which (as was said in an earlier comment) that if introduced in a different way would change the way the you see them.

Vincent is a really unlikable character (even if he wasn't a hired killer), the way he talks down to Butch for no reason at the bar, his laughing at Jules for wanting to change his life for the better and they way he threatens to shoot Ringo when Jules is giving him his money and defuse a violent situation (showing his character growth) "on general principal". When Mia ODs on his Heroin he is only worried about how it would come back on him and when he is sent to kill Butch he makes a mess of it by leaving his gun out where Butch gets it and I could go on. But even with all this because of the introduction we still have a soft spot for him and even feel bad when he dies.

And yes Die Hard is a masterpiece and the sitting in the front seat of the Limo says more about him then pages of dialogue could.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott! That is a great point. Vincent really is an unlikable character throughout, but you build up this reservoir of goodwill from the opening scene that gets you through the film without really realizing how much you would dislike this man if you just judge him by the rest of the movie. That's really strong writing.

Rob S. Rice said...

On the subject of, to quote the ghost written novel's version, 'Han frying poor Greedo,' a vital point oft neglected is that Greedo had told Han, quite clearly, that he was going to kill him. Han did NOT quote Golda Meir's famous line, 'When someone says they are going to kill you, believe them,' he just... took Greedo at his word. It was not a reprehensible act. It was the right thing at the right time, that Han at his best did every time, and at his worst did NOT do, at the weakest points of his story.

Funny you'd mention 'Die Hard,' which is full of John McClean doing exactly the same thing--the right thing when nothing else would do, again, and again, and again. 'Welcome to the party, Pal!' is one of the great moments in cinema.

shawn said...

"Show, don't tell." as the saying goes. There is a movie that I like called The Illusionist, that fails in this. It is the story of a poor boy who grows up to be a famous magician and the high-born girl he loves that grows up to be engaged to the Crown Prince. They meet as adults and we are told the Prince can violent to women, so it is sad they (the illusionist and woman) can't be together. SPOILERS ahead: so they come up with a scheme to frame the Prince for murder so they can run off together. Being an illusionist, he helps the woman to fake her death and have her spirit come back later to claim the Prince killed her. The illusionist and the woman end up together and you generally feel, love wins out in the end, but I can't help but think, did the Prince really deserve his fate? The Prince is a bit of a dick, but not such that he is shown to be deserving of being pushed to suicide. END SPOILERS.

Tennessee Jed said...

o.k. Missed this one yesterday. Not only was the character development excellent, it also shows how "time shifting" can be used to help enhance the tension building in the character development

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, "Show, don't tell" is a great rule. And if I could sum up what the thought in the article is, it's that if you're going to tell, then distract with action as you tell.

On The Illusionist, I enjoyed that a good deal when I saw it, but I've never revisited it. On your point, I think that it's important that you get the audience in the right frame of mind to accept the actions that befall the characters. If someone isn't unlikable enough, then you can't have the good guys kill him.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Absolutely. It's clear to me that the best stories always use some form of layered storytelling in which your manipulate the order of events to get the maximum effect.

AndrewPrice said...

Rob, That's true. And that is just enough to keep Han as a good guy. If Greedo has said, "Pay up or I call the cops," then we would not have sympathized with Han. Instead, Greedo tells him he will kill him and seems to imply that he's going to enjoy it. Han then settles the dispute in a way that makes sense -- he ends the fight before it starts.

Individualist said...

So uh I guess the Romantic scene in the sequel to the prequel Phantom Menace (sorry mind blanks on the name) where the lovers Annikan and Omadala ride around on the backs of Giant Fleas did not make up for the first movie then...

As to jar jar I think we can name him .... annoying, stupid, unique talent to make the audience hate him uh yeah I guess that does not help

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