Characterization


“It is surprising how one character can conveniently alter the structure of my world and then… watch another painfully destroy it. Those were heartaches.” – Sath Cruz

Having the ability to be someone else is not a talent given generously. There are very few writers, few directors, and even fewer actors than have the ability to create a character so deep, so whole and so real that it would feel like the character is a part of your life, in an intimate way.

Odd because characters are what a movie is all about. Even if your movie is a plot-driven one, characters make it move. It is what the audience sympathise with and root for. It is the whole reason they are spending two hours of their life they can never get back.

If there is anything a filmmaker should spends time on before making the movie, it should be in creating the characters.

It Starts With the Script

At the heart of every great movie, is a good script.

There is an exercise that the corporate world practices whenever they launch or relaunch new products. It’s called a SWOT which stands for Strength, Weakness, Objectives, Threats. It is also something you can practice when creating a character. Identify the person’s SWOT. Their SWOT is what gives them a reason to act the way they do, say the things they say, and make them the way they are.

Let us take Micheal Corleone for example. In part 1 of Godfather, he has always been the one counted on to make the Corleone family legitimate businessmen. That was his objective. He was a master strategist and tactician. His skill in manipulating situation was even stronger than his fathers’. That was his strength but he is ruthless in levels and ways his own father could never imagine being. That was his weakness. Then there’s the Mafia world refusing to let him out and there’s the supposed clean world of legitimate businesses, refusing to let him in. Those were his threats.

Unlike the world of business though, you need to take it farther. There’s got to be a reason for your characters’ SWOT. He wasn’t born in that world with all those pre-installed programs.

I remember watching Chris Rock in Lethal Weapon. As expected, he was this nice but annoyingly talkative policeman. He was a minor player and I wasn’t expecting the filmmakers to explain the history of his mouth. After all, there are people that are simply talkative. Yet, in one of the scenes, he went to say something like “I grew up in Brooklyn. There were constant gunfires that we were always asked to get down on the floor. We did everything on the floor, we slept on the floor, we ate on the floor, we slept on the floor. Now I’m a policeman not because I hate bad guys but because I hate the floor.”

It was a brilliant characterization. It was different but it sure gave me the whole idea how he ended up being the way he was, talkative, annoying, and a policeman.

It’s a Collaboration

You know what they say? It takes a village to raise a child.

It is true even in filmmaking. There is no way you can expect the writer alone to hone a character. The Director needs to understand the characters, most especially. Then there’s the actor, the production designer, the costume designer… each must get a clear grasp of the character. Can you imagine Susan (Madonna) in Desperately Seeking Susan wearing any other dress than that sheer-cloth-bra-showing top?

Here is another example. When Director Afonso Cuaron was offered the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (third part of the series), he has neither watched the first two films nor read the novels. He called in the Danielle Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint and asked them to write an essay about their character. Watson, in true Hermione fashion, wrote a 16-page essay. Radcliffe wrote a simple one page explanation while Grint didn’t even turn in his assignment. He said, that is what Ron would have done. Cuaron knew Grint got it.

What’s In The Character’s Wallet?

There is this old trick among scriptwriters. If you really know your characters, you would be able to tell what’s in the character’s wallet, bag, room, house, car…

These are the elements of a person that could show you the most intimate details of a person. You can even practice it on yourself. Take a look at your wallet, bag, or room. What’s in it and you will see how eerily it reflects you.

It’s not necessarily something you show in the movie but it’s something you need to know as a filmmaker.

Make Them Live It

Francis Ford Coppola was hardly in his 30s when he directed Godfather 1. It was, as I imagine all of us will agree, epic.

Coppola knew he was working with great actors. All he had to do was give them the script and the call sheet and everyone will show up on time. Coppola wasn’t satisfied. He needed the actors to understand beyond their characters. He wanted them to understand what the Corleone family was all about. He wanted to make sure that each actor understands, no live, the relationship and dynamics between each other and how the world they are in affects it.

There was a scene in part one where Sonny (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), were on a dinner table with other family members. Coppola asked the whole Corleone family (the cast) to come to the set several hours early. Food was waiting for them and he asked them to have lunch IN CHARACTER.

The result was a dynamic that even Coppola was surprised to see. He felt how Sonny was the overprotective brother to all his siblings, how Michael slips into being the youngest brother who is happy to stay in the shadows but eerily quiet and pensive. There is Connie who has nestled too long on the arms of domineering men on her life that she has lost all her backbone and identity and Fredo, the weak, invisible middle sibling who was doomed to be disrespected from the beginning.

Base It On The Truth

I have a friend who is a scriptwriter and I have dubbed her “the invisible one”. She can spend the entire day walking around… just around… watching people. She can sit still in a café for two hours just watching and listening to people. Whenever she is with a group, she walks behind everyone else because she watches her companions. In a gathering, she hardly speaks because she would rather listen to and watch people.

She likes listening to gossips, she likes looking at a person’s bag or wallet or bedroom, she likes asking people question… too much, in fact, that you will never really get a chance to know her but she knows so much about everyone else.

She also creates the most interesting characters in a movie and whenever I ask her how she did it, she would always say she didn’t do much. She actually just stole all those characters from real people. Many of her lines, she claims, were also spoken by real people, some she knows personally, some are from some girl in some coffee shop she overheard some two years ago.

The result is some of the most endearing, powerful, annoying, liberating, insane, brilliant, and eerily real and whole characters I have ever met, errr, watched.

There are more tricks you can try to create powerful characters. You can even device your own strategy. What is important, though, is that you don’t stop until you get it right. Just be careful, once your characters are whole, they can take a life of their own. And like any other real person, they can make you laugh just as hard as they can make y


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