Deposition and Orchestration ^
On the one hand characters should carry the conflict and theme of a story; on the other hand they should also possess their own characteristics. According to Aristotle a well developed character’s behaviour should be ‘consequently inconsequent’. Only through their contradictions do characters move from their dramatic function to three-dimensional characters. A character may be portrayed through her own behaviour – speech, body language, humour, appearance, daily routine, action and activity (self-description). But she may also be portrayed through the reaction of others (peer-description) to her.
Characters should be orchestrated in a way that they mirror and contrast each other. By deviating a secondary character’s reaction to a problem or extreme situation, the protagonist’s behaviour will be experienced as extraordinary/unusual. This way a writer is able to define, sharpen and differentiate character profiles in a short narrative time. Secondary characters may also be the main character of a sub-storyline with their own conflict and want. In the case of little narrative time a character should be drawn with just a few but precise features. These don’t have to result in a cliché: through the use of contradictions even small secondary roles may become original and unique. In an ensemble all characters should have specific relationships with each other. These relationships may be structural, social, situation-based or emotional and may furthermore be charged positively or negatively. The relationships should develop dynamically in accordance with the development of the characters in the film – e.g. a change in status will also bring about a change in the hierarchy of characters.
The relationships offer a combination of similarities and differences, sympathy and antipathy, dependences and hierarchies, alliances and enmities. This is how the characters are differentiated and – as long as it makes sense – opposed to each other in a variety of conflicts. Should several characters fulfil the same function they should be reduced to just one.
Dramatic Functions ^
Every character in a story that has an influence on the plot therefore fulfils a specific dramatic function. She can be the catalyst and speed up events or work against achieving the goal.
The film’s central dramatic role belongs to the protagonist. She is the character around whom the plot revolves and to whom all other characters refer. Often the protagonist is accompanied by a love-interest, a mentor, an ally or sidekick.
On the opposing side the antagonist as the main character’s opponent takes over the central dramatic role. The dramatic task of the threshold guardian, the shadow and the shapeshifter is also to prevent the protagonist from achieving his want or need.
The character’s dispositions are her philosophical, moral, physical, emotional and neurotic characteristics that influence and determine her conscious and un-conscious behaviour. They constitute the basis for her subsequent decisions, her action and non-action.
The character’s credo are her philosophical convictions and principles, that which she stands for and lives according to: her morals, her values, her attitude towards life and her belief. These beliefs, so firmly held, may also prove false or fatal as the story unfolds, forcing the character into a painful learning.
The character’s wound is her handicap, Achilles’ heel, disease or trauma that has shaped her and that she always carries with her. It can be physical or emotional and hinders the character in her advance. Often the character tries to conceal her wound from others. In many cases it has been inflicted on her before the beginning of the film (back-story wound).
A secret first if all characterizes the character herself: Why does she have this secret – out of fear, shame, stinginess, or other motives? And what is she doing to keep her secret? Furthermore it also characterizes the character’s relationship to those from whom she has the secret, and her relationship to everyone with whom she shares it. The more intimate or trusting the relationship appears, the heavier the secret that stands between the characters. The exposure of the secret naturally represents an important turn in the character relationship as well as in the plot.
These single dispositions of the character are connected in a more or less complex way.
Character arc ^
Connecting character and audience ^
Sympathy is based on the audience liking the character’s appearance, attitude and behaviour and sharing his want. It represents a sheer individual preference for specific characteristics.
Empathy arises when the audience can understand the need, hopes, wishes and motivations of a character and compare them with their own feelings. The emotional resonance is laughing, crying, cheering and suffering with the character.
Identification is based on the audience’s need to recognise, to experience and to share the character’s feelings. Signs of identification are: The audience takes the character’s side; they hope that the character’s hopes and desires are fulfilled; they are worried about the character; they care about what happens to the character so much that they want to know how the story ends. The identification of the audience with the protagonist usually happens via the need. This explains why we also identify with negative characters such as Frank Underwood (“House of Cards”) or Walter White (“Breaking Bad”). Character-focused narration is very useful to achieve the audience’s identification.
Immersion means that the audience totally surrenders to the illusion of the film. At this point the audience’s feelings go beyond sheer empathy with the plight of the character and reach a state where they merge and feel the character’s pain themselves. This can only be achieved through a sensuous narration. The audience doesn’t just feel like a witness, but as part of the story. They are involved and participate.
The protagonist is the main character of the film. All constituent elements of a story are aligned according to her – conflict, want, need and theme. Furthermore the protagonist is usually also the focal point of the narrative point of view and of the identification of the audience. Among the ensemble of characters, she embodies the most complex features, the key link between character relationships and the greatest involvement in the single storylines. The protagonist may be set up as a hero or antihero. Besides the protagonist of the film there may also be a protagonist for each single storyline or scene.
Defining the main character ^
How do you find out who the main character is? There’s always a character that is just a bit more exposed than the other characters even in episodic and ensemble films. This is the secret main character of a story. Sometimes the dominant character is mistaken for the protagonist. The following criteria will help to identify the real main character of a story:
- is most thoroughly introduced at the beginning of the film, i.e. is the focus of the first act?
- has the most complex characteristics?
- harbours the greatest potential for audience identification?
- has a want and a need?
- has the biggest conflict or is in a dilemma?
- has to lose the most?
- pushes the plot forward and makes the most decisions?
- embodies the main narrative point of view?
- is the link between all the other characters, i.e. has a relationship with most characters?
- is involved in most storylines?
- undergoes the biggest personal development?
- experiences the strongest emotions?
- represents the theme of the film?
The character you point to for most questions is probably the main character of the story.
Equal main characters ^
Having two more or less equal main characters is quite rare. If both protagonists pursuit the same want then they constitute a companionship of fate and the basic conflict would also work with just one main character. The dramatic reason for casting two protagonists is an escalation of the conflict as in ‘Open Water’ (2003). Usually two protagonists serve mainly one purpose: the possibility to externalise their thoughts through a direct dialogue with each other. That’s the reason for using agents in pairs in most crime stories.
Two protagonists may also just constitute a partnership of convenience: actually they wouldn’t have much in common or would even avoid each other if their ‘wants’ weren’t interdependent or mutually beneficial. This means that they can only achieve their goal by uniting their powers and employing their complimenting abilities. Their shared interests usually lead to a rapprochement in the course of the film. Examples are ‘The Mighty’ (1998) or ‘4 Minutes’ (2006).
There are two genres where two main characters are not only allowed but are obligatory: In a ‘buddy movie’ an active and a passive protagonist – either two men or two women – pursuit the same goal. The passive protagonist becomes active as part of her development in the course of the film. In the ‘romantic comedy’ both protagonists are lovers who fight to get together. But most of the time one character fulfils the criteria for defining the main character more than another.
The antagonist is the opponent of the protagonist, the personification of the conflict, obstacles and dangers. These two often constitute the central character relationship of the story.
The character that provokes the protagonist the most and/or offers the greatest resistance is most suitable as antagonist. The antagonist identifies the weaknesses of the protagonist and exposes them. He has a certain power over the protagonist, strucks a nerve and attacks her at her most vulnerable spot. Thus, the antagonist provokes the protagonist to mobilize all her strengths and raises the stakes. Like the protagonist, the antagonist has a want as well as a need. His want is incompatible with the protagonist’s want.
In one specific aspect the antagonist and protagonist are very much alike. For example: The antagonist may be a former hero, who has fallen and who’s bitter and resentful because of a tragic blow of fate or a suffered loss. He mirrors the protagonist by showing quite plainly how certain potentials may transform into negative energy. Against the backdrop of their similarities their differences stand out even clearer.
Having found her match in the antagonist exercising power over her the protagonist is forced to surpass her own limitations and fears. This doesn’t mean that the antagonist has to be the classic enemy of the protagonist or act morally inferior. His motivation needs to be just as comprehensible. Maybe their only difference is an excessive characteristic or intolerance in certain values. The dramatic opponent of the protagonist might be just as well the life partner, love interest, parent or child. Sometimes the antagonist is already introduced in the prologue of the film by presenting the threat he’s posing.
Dominant Character ^
The dominant character is usually a flamboyant or extreme person being juxtaposed with a plain and average protagonist. He is more easily remembered than the actual main character and may even appear in more scenes. This sets him up as the perceived main character. This impression is often already suggested and/or enforced by the title because many films carry the name of their dominant character in the title. Through his dramatic function as catalyst the dominant character causes or initiates the conflict, the plot and/ the protagonist’s recognition (also anagnorisis). He often doesn’t have the awareness or willingness to change due to mental defects. Unlike the protagonist the dominant character is therefore not suitable for identification.
In some cases the dominant character appears to be the antagonist, even though he’s not (e.g. ‘Fight Club’, 1999). The difference between them is that the dominant character does not pursuit a ‘want’ that is interlinked with the protagonist.
The ally (also helper, companion, comrade) is the sounding board of the protagonist by getting her feelings across to the audience. He supports the protagonist in the pursuit of her want and sometimes even profits from this. In addition he may have his own goal which he pursuits in a sub-storyline.
It may also be that an apparent ally of the protagonist turns out to be her enemy, perhaps a supporter of the antagonist. He influences the protagonist by ingratiating himself with her. He gives wrong and contra-productive advice, misleads her, deceives her and points her in the wrong direction.
His major advantage is that the protagonist has no idea about his real intention. Sometimes the apparent ally gets into a dilemma by getting to know the protagonist and having second thoughts. He develops sympathetic and compassionate feelings for her so that it becomes impossible to harm her and he ends up wishing for her to win. This dilemma might even lead to him helping her win at the crucial moment. In any case – the apparent ally carries the potential for an effective recognition, revelation and/or twist. He becomes a shapeshifter. (An ally may also act with best intentions and still harm the protagonist, because ‘best intentions’ don’t automatically mean that his influence is positive.)
The apparent ally’s counterpart is the apparent opponent who is secretly an ally of the protagonist. This one acts like he abhors her and fights her. In reality he wants to challenge her. Such a characterisation is often used with mentors.
In a dramatic sense the sidekick is the protagonist’s friendly assistant: He helps him think and act, leaps to his side, feeds him lines, makes arrangements for him, thinks for him, does the ‘dirty work’ and lets him shine. He always means well – but this may also have contra-productive effects, especially if the sidekick is designed as a comic character. His devotion and absolute loyalty may also be somewhat obsessive. Classical sidekicks are: Walter for The Dude (in ‘The Big Lebowski’), Sam for Frodo (in ‘Lord of the Rings’), Bubba for ‘Forrest Gump’ or Donkey for ‘Shrek’.
- Becker, Jens: Figuren und Charaktere. Das Enneagramm als Werkzeug für Drehbuchautoren und andere Kreative. Berlin 2012 (DVD-ROM).
- Becker, Jens: Script Tool Enneagramm 2.0 (E-Book).
- McKee, Robert: Character: The Art of Role and Cast Design for Page, Stage, and Screen. 2021.
- Seger, Linda: Creating Unforgettable Characters. New York 1990.
- Riemann, Fritz: Grundformen der Angst: Eine tiefenpsychologische Studie. Munich 2009.