(SPOILERS: The Heat, The Godfather, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer)
My friend Ken Aguado (co-author with me of The Hollywood Pitching Bible) is fond of saying that film is not really about character, it’s about behavior. In other words, it’s not about the elements that have shaped the character to be who they are today, it’s about how that character’s persona is revealed on screen.
This is because film is a visual medium that unfolds with immediacy. You have to reveal in the moment. It doesn’t matter how interesting and brilliant and unique your characters are if they all talk and behave the same.
Of course in order to give proper characterization to a character, the writer must understand who that person is. We have to know what motivates them, what scares them, their hopes and dreams, their political, moral and religious beliefs. But none of that work will come across to the audience if we don’t reveal it through behavior and other elements of characterization.
There are several characterization tools at our disposal:
How the character looks: In most cases the first impression we’ll get of a character is their appearance. In screenplays it’s best to avoid long descriptions, but whatever you choose to describe about the way a character is dressed or their physicality or how they’re groomed should tell us something important about them.
For example, in The Heat (written by Katie Dippold), the contrast between Mullins’ sleeveless sweatshirt and fingerless leather gloves and Ashburn’s button-up pantsuits tells a lot about who they are – and why they probably won’t get along.
The character’s environment: The environment a character creates for themselves at home or work or wherever can tell us a lot about them. In The Heat we see Mullins’ trashed apartment in a run down building, her fridge filled with weapons and a two-day-old half of a sandwich. That gives a pretty good insight into her personality, doesn’t it?
How the character talks: Character voice is one of your most useful tools when it comes to characterization. The way a character speaks can reveal their personality, their socio-economic status, hints of back-story and, of course, their emotional state.
There’s a great scene in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) where Michael goes to Vegas. He meets with Mo Green, who has taken in Fredo. In the scene, Michael tells Mo he wants to buy out his interest in the casino. Mo gets furious, yelling and screaming – “Do you know who I am?” Michael stays calm, waits out the storm, never saying more than he needs to. Meanwhile Fredo continually tries to defuse the situation.
Mo’s bluster tells us he’s an arrogant guy with a temper who’s used to getting what he wants. Michael’s calm authority shows his confidence and self-control. Fredo’s rambling and wheedling and attempts to make nice reveal that he’s averse to confrontation and lacks self-confidence. (This scene also makes good use of costuming: Michael’s expensive, conservative dark suit vs. Fredo’s flashy suit with a scarf tied around his neck.)
For tips on how to create character voice, check out my character diary exercise.
What others say about the character: I suppose this is not strictly characterization, but it can reveal a lot. Remember, actions speak louder than words – we believe what a character does more than what they say about themselves. But we will also tend to believe what other characters say about them. And, it’s much more believable for someone to talk about another person’s character than for that person to talk about themselves.
In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), other characters tell us about Rick – how he doesn’t drink with his patrons, how he always stays strictly neutral. And it is Laszlo that reveals that Rick used to be something of a freedom fighter. Speaking of Laszlo, he never comes out and talks about what a noble and honorable man he is – that would just sound arrogant. It’s the other characters that tell us that.
Behavior: The best way to characterize someone, however, is through their behavior. Little things can be particularly helpful – the way Sally in When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) always gives explicit instructions about how to prepare her food whenever she orders something in a restaurant, for example.
Behavior can even show character change. In Kramer vs. Kramer (screenplay by Robert Benton), there’s a scene the morning after Ted’s wife has left where he attempts to make French toast for his son’s breakfast. He obviously has no idea what he’s doing, getting eggshells in the mix and burning himself. It’s clear he has not participated much in the domestic chores of the family before this, which tells us something important about him.
Then much later in the movie Ted again makes French toast for his son – only this time his cooking is smooth and effortless and he carries on a meaningful conversation with his son the whole time. He’s a different person now, with different priorities, who has learned from his experiences through the story.
So develop your characters, of course, but also spend some time thinking about how to characterize them with their appearance, environment, voice and behavior. It’s how we tell stories on film.