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How does the panel approach character?

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Benn and Christabelle Dilks discuss their take on cinematic character
[Michael] First, we’re creating roles, not finished characters, as you would in a novel, for example. We have to leave space for a performance. We know we’re going to empathise with this character. In most cases, in Anglo American films, stories will be driven by a single protagonist or protagonists that have a clearly defined goal. What else do we do? How do we define the character? Molly says she starts all the way back and develops a full back-story for the character before the events happen. I don’t know - what do you do? [Tom] It very much depends on the character but just thinking thinking of ‘71, you know, you’ve got a character there that is ostensibly incredibly passive.
For the entire film he’s at the mercy of outside forces. Things just happen to him and that reveals him - that shows you who he is. And it’s also exciting which we’re - so what would we do if we had no agency for the course of this life, and you know that reveals everything this character has. He has so little, so few lines of dialogue. [Michael] Right, he barely says anything. I want to say one thing about passive, though, that he’s not totally passive I mean stuff is happening to him. Sometimes we talk about wants and needs as if somebody wants to do something, climb a mountain, win a race. Sometimes what we want to do is survive.
That stuff is happening to us and that desire is just to escape and that’s clearly what’s motivating. [Tom] Absolutely, yeah, but they’re sort of the external forces are preventing that … [Michael] Right. And it’s very, very superficial in that regard. There is no psychic wound that we know of. This guy is running for his life and that’s compelling and that’s more than enough to to grip the audience, to make him compelling, and probably explains just about every Hitchcock movie. He famously said my object is to suspend, and that’s what it’s doing. [Christabelle] I think when I write a character, I’m trying …
Yeah, I think, for me, I would also say I’m really interested in the back-story and what happened to them but I’m thinking about this moment in time and what … I come back to - they want and need something desperately but something is in the way and there’s a strong reason why they can’t compromise. And that’s what what they’re going to have to thrash out. And it can be a tiny thing. It can be what they need is to refine their understanding of what a marriage is, or it can be to come to terms with a death. It can be a very small shift, psychologically maybe, it doesn’t have to be detonate a bomb, or disarm a bomb.
[Molly] I just want to say one more thing actually, there’s something, I’m interested in the conflict between archetype and cliche because when I’m - there are obviously so many characters we’ve seen before and a lineage of of characters that we recognise and I think it’s okay to be working with archetypes but I think we have to be really careful of not being cliched, and I’m always really aware of trying to write original characters, which is a hard thing when you’re writing a character who we may have met before.
So, I think, in that respect, specificity is incredibly important, which is where the back-story really helps because then that kind of, comes in organically, rather than you saw placing that on afterwards. [Tom] Yeah, the specific is definitely the root of the universal. Sorry, I interrupted you. [Christabelle] No, no, I quite agree and then you’ve got complexities you can line up, they’re drivers in their life, are these, are the quotidian things that they do, these are the special things that they do. You have a hell of a … as do with a real person, you have a pallete to draw on - don’t you?
[Tom] I don’t think characters in films need to be - great characters need to be likeable, or moral, or sympathetic to each other, or the audience. They just need to be compelling. They need to be interesting. [Michael] But what makes them compelling. That’s probably the question. [Tom] I think there should always be an element of mystery. There should always be an omission - something left out. They should be fathomable, relatable, understandable on one level and then tantalisingly unfathomable on another. I’m thinking of, you know, Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces, or you know, Samantha Morton’s character in Morvern Callar, where we understand some of this behaviour and some of it is inexplicable.
And it’s that mystery that resonates, that makes a great character. [Michael] Yeah, I think a lot of young writers anyway, think that we have to explain absolutely everything, and the opposite is true, right? We have to leave out enough to leave room for, first, for an actor portraying this to flow into, but also for the audience to flow into and to wonder what’s this person doing and why?
[Christabelle] I’m looking for a character who has a burning need or want, even if that changes in the course of the film, so strong that they will overcome the obstacles that are thrown in the way, even if, in the end, it’s a tragedy and they are beaten by the obstacles and that’s a tragic ending. That’s fine too. But you’re absolutely right, they do need to be engaging. Absolutely not necessarily likeable, I would say but you have to, from the very get-go, want to follow them. [Michael] It’s interesting.
I think they have to be doing something very clearly and the character has to know what they’re doing but they don’t necessarily have to be a hundred percent clear on what they want - even at an external level and that’s always interesting, the character wants many things at once. That’s how we get - that’s complexity and that’s how we all are. We have many, many different threads of desire all running at the same time and we socialise ourselves so that we don’t act on them. [Christabelle] But this film - the film is going to come about because of one particular dominating desire that they may not be conscious of. [Michael] Sometimes! It depends on the type of film.
There some films where the character is not altogether clear on what they want. If we’re going to a big summer tent-pole movie at the Multiplex then that character, it’s going to be very clear to the character and to the audience what they want, but a smaller specialty house film may not be and it may be a bit of a mystery to all of us what’s driving this character. [Christabelle] I was going to say I think that it’s fine for the character not be conscious of what they want but I think it’s useful if the audience has some awareness because I think that’s what keeps you engaged. [Tom] Not necessarily. [Michael] That’s another element of it …
[Tom] There are other ways to tell a story. I don’t know if you always need to go through character. I mean it helps with personal stories. [Michael] Right, let’s come back to that later, as well.

The panel discuss what they are looking for in a cinematic character and some approaches to creating characters.

It’s over to you: thinking about a film that you’ve recently seen, what characters have stood out for you and why? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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An Introduction to Screenwriting

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