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In Defense of Character: Creating Surpassing Drama with Character Transformation Stories

Posted by Teacher Lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012

Reprinted from Release Print Magazine, August, 2003

The other day while consulting with a client, I found myself once again defending the function of character in drama. Her screenplay was packed with lively vignettes expounding on socially critical ideas, but the script didn’t have a clearly identified main character. When I told her this, she let out an impatient sigh. “I know,” she said, “you need a main character so you can manipulate the audience into getting involved with your story.”

Lately, such cynical views of character have become increasingly prevalent. Hollywood studios are fixated on producing box office draws full of action, obstacles, complications and triumphs. I’m told there are studio executives who still develop character-driven stories, but few of those projects make it into production. The current perception is that a story of internal conflict is uncommercial and, therefore, won’t provide big opening grosses.

Given the studios’ neglect, one would hope to find a more welcoming environment in the independent film industry. However, in recent years independents have favored a post-modern “edginess,” reacting against conventional narrative with experimentation in form while de-emphasizing elements that engage the audience emotionally. Character growth is viewed as a product of therapy-generation, navel-gazing more fitting for an episode of Oprah. When character is featured, the story takes the form of a “slice-of-life” study in realism, eschewing cathartic climaxes and tidy resolutions as a manifestation of the Hollywood fantasy factory.

In truth, it is only human nature to want to engage in a story through an emotional attachment to a main character, a concept that is known in screenwriting parlance as providing a “sympathetic character.” It is also human nature to want to see the main character progress in some way, a phenomenon called “character transformation.” However, these concepts of sympathetic character and character transformation need not be applied only in broad or simplistic terms. Indisputably, too often they are, but only because of a set of misconceptions surrounding them.

Misconception #1: The Thoroughly Likable Main Character

“In order for your main character to be sympathetic, he or she must be likable.”

This belief is most widely applied in commercial films. The function of the sympathetic character is to create audience investment in the story. Writers do this by introducing the character at a power disadvantage. As viewers, we can then relate because we have all felt like underdogs at some point in our lives.

However, getting an audience to sympathize with your character does not mean making that character thoroughly likeable. In fact, once you have the audience invested, you can then have that character go off and do all kinds of mean, nasty, awful things, and the audience stays with him. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski achieved this in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. While they were fascinated by Flynt’s bizarre nature, they knew they couldn’t assume the audience would feel the same for one who unabashedly profits from the exploitation of women. So they introduce Flynt in his childhood, with he and his brother Jim selling moonshine in the hollers of Kentucky. Finding their drunken father on the floor of the moonshine shack, Larry throws a jug at him. The father grabs a shotgun as the boys hightail it into the woods. Out of range, Jim asks Larry why he did that. “Because he was drinking all our profits,” says Larry.

Growing up in dire poverty with a drunken, violent father, Flynt is shown at a power disadvantage. But the writers aren’t merely pulling at heartstrings with childhood hardship. We also learn that Flynt is a born entrepreneur. Since he doesn’t have the typical middle class lawn-mowing opportunities, he makes his money distilling moonshine, just as later he will achieve success in the porno industry. The writers are using his humble beginnings and unusual skills to fulfill the audience’s need to become engaged with the character. Once we are on board, they can then go on to explore the flaws and contradictions of human nature that make for surpassing drama.

Misconception #2: Emotional Engagement As Manipulation

“Anything designed to engage the audience emotionally is manipulation, treating the audience as stupid and preventing them from engaging with the subject matter intellectually.”

I see this view reflected not only in the work of students and clients, but also in films that favor cinematic form over dramatic content. The idea originates with playwright and theorist Bertold Brecht, who advocated a set of techniques, called the “alienation effect,” designed to keep the viewer at an emotional distance in order to expose adverse social conditions. The intended result was that the viewer would reflect rationally on the play’s meaning and be motivated to take action. Easier said than done, of course, and while Brecht’s theories inspired much innovation in drama, even he was not always able to get the desired results in his work. In most films these days, the tactic of keeping viewers at an emotional distance from the main character’s experience is not being used to advocate for a dire social cause.

Recently, I made an accidental but fortuitous comparative study of the effects of emotional distance when I saw two different films with very similar themes. On a Friday night, I watched Secretary, a campy comedy about a young woman with a tendency to self-mutilate who goes to work for a sadistic lawyer and ultimately falls in love with him. Then on Saturday, I spontaneously decided to see The Piano Teacher and discovered that it’s about a piano teacher with masochistic impulses who tries to get one of her students to dominate her.

Later, while reflecting on my unintentional S&M weekend at the movies, I was trying to figure out why I enjoyed Secretary so much more than The Piano Teacher, even though The Piano Teacher is superior cinematically. I then realized that in Secretary we are invited to identify with the young woman, whereas The Piano Teacher keeps us at a distance. While not all of us are self-mutilators or sexual masochists, most of us have at some point acted out at least a mild form of masochism, such as trying to get back with a lover who dumped us. Who hasn’t done that? By involving us sympathetically with the masochistic character, Secretary manages to express for us our own masochistic impulse, while taking it to a comical level. As we laugh at her, we also laugh at ourselves. The Piano Teacher, however, keeps us at an emotional distance, enabling us to comfortably say, “Oh, that’s not me. I’m not a deviant freak like she is.” In the process, we fail to gain any significant insight into that aspect of human nature.

Misconception #3: Character Growth As Hollywood Melodrama

“Character transformation is a vestige of the old American redemptive melodrama in which the character must experience a massive change or revelation. But this is Hollywood fantasy because in real life people don’t change.”

Directors and screenwriters who want to challenge the conventional narrative form often share this misconception. In truth, character transformation is simply one way of ensuring that something happens in the course of the story. It makes the difference between describing a static situation and showing a progression from beginning to end—going from A to B. 
Imagine coming home from work and your partner or friend says, “How was your day?” You launch into a chronicle of the days events and then pause. What might your listener say? “So? Then what happened?” You’re describing your day – you had a meeting, you took a phone call, you had lunch. Who cares?

However, if you come home and say, “Oh my God! You wouldn’t believe what happened! At lunch, I ran into an old friend from college. We were catching up, and he told me that my college boyfriend, who would never commit to me, has gone off to become a Buddhist monk!” Your listener then has a sense of fulfillment in the insight that you gained (it was not about you, the boyfriend would not have committed to anyone). The story has ended up in a different place from where it started. This is the function of character transformation – to provide a story with an A to B progression.

The mistake people make is to think that this transformation must be an 180 degree about face. Those toiling in conventional (i.e., commercial) narrative make this assumption due to the good-versus-evil, win-or-lose extremes in the Hollywood genre film’s triumphant ending. But character offers the opportunity to write drama that is individual, with subtlety and complexity and very, very small achievements. Those wanting to push the bounds of the conventional narrative regard this assumption as a reason to throw out the concept of transformation altogether. According to this bias, going for a big change in the main character is what leads to all those inauthentic cathartic climaxes and tidy resolutions. However, in truth a fully individualized character need not progress 180 degrees in order to transform. They can end up only two degrees further along, but if the shift is significant, the audience will still have the feeling of having arrived at B.

Woody Allen’s 1975 classic Annie Hall opens with Alvie Singer telling us he can’t figure out what went wrong in his relationship with Annie. The film launches into his childhood, his past marriages, and how he and Annie met, fell in love, and moved in together. Tensions take hold and they break up. Then they get back together, and then break up again. When Alvie tries one more time to get her back, she refuses. Years later, he runs into her and they have lunch. As they part on a street corner, he tells us that he now realizes what a great person she is and how much fun it was just to have known her. 
If the film had concluded with Alvie being refused once and for all by Annie, it would hardly be a satisfying answer to his initial need for understanding. In fact, without the epilogue, the film is merely the chronicle of a doomed relationship. However, when he lets us know that he has come to accept Annie for who she is and feels fortunate simply to have known her, we see that he has traveled a psychological distance from his ruminations at the beginning on what went wrong.

In terms of growth, Alvie’s character did not flip 180 degrees. He is not, for example, happy and committed in a well-functioning relationship. Instead, we see a small internal step. Whereas before he was trying to get Annie to change and resented her for leaving him, now he appreciates the gifts she brought into his life. With this tiny insight, he has let go of his angst and some hope exists, although with no guarantees, that he will appreciate his next partner simply for who she is.

Of course, character transformation is not the only way to get a story from A to B. You can get there through the triumph over an enemy, the solving of a mystery, or a fundamental shift in the audience’s understanding of the world. My client mentioned above wanted to create a shift in her audience’s understanding of the world. But this is not easy to do, being so abstract. Consequently, she was basing her story’s structure on a plot progression leading to an external triumph. My suggestion was that she engage the audience with a main character who experiences an internal progression as the external events unfold. She would then be providing the story with more dramatic depth than a simple plot triumph.

The varieties and intricacies of human nature offer vast storytelling material. Why do we behave the way we do? Why do we torment those we love? How great a challenge must we be faced with before we do what’s right? But creating meaningful drama around character is not an easy task. Hollywood has largely given up on it and the independents have become distracted from it. Nonetheless, the films that bring us insight into our ways of being in the world are the ones that have the most staying power over time. Writing them and striving to get them made is still important, as these are the stories that feed our souls.