MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

CHARACTER THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS


Blackhawk Down DVD - Buy it!

Let's look at the war movie BLACKHAWK DOWN... I thought the film was okay, but had some problems with the it. The battle scenes are very realistic, they make you feel like you're right there in the middle of the fighting, but I kept getting the characters mixed up. Sure, I knew Josh Hartnett and Ewan MacGregor and Tom Sizemore and the always great Bill Fichtner... but who were all of those other guys? People were getting killed right and left, and I had no idea who they were. Since I didn't know them, their deaths had no real effect on me. The guy that gets blown in half and the top half is still alive and talking? Gross, but not emotional. The guy who gets a mortar shell stuck in his gut and might actually explode? Gross, but again I didn't know him so I didn't care. The center piece of the film's end is a doctor (who I didn't know) bravely trying to keep a wounded soldier (who I didn't know) alive. When he dies, the music tells me I'm supposed to think it's a sad moment, but the moment itself has no effect at all on me. That guy was a stranger - it's sad he's dead, but I didn't know anything about him.

When Ebert & Roeper reviewed the film, Roeper complained that he didn't know any of the characters enough to care and that was Jay Leno's complaint when the two were guests on his show. Ebert countered by pointing out that the thumbnail character introductions in the beginning of BLACKHAWK DOWN turned all of the characters into war movie cliches - did Roeper (and Leno) want more of that? That was a good point - those quick introductions where we get a few seconds to peg this guy as the family man who can't wait to get home to his wife and that guy as the religious one and that guy as the ladies man turn all of the characters into caricatures. The whole thing is like that joke about the two people in the restaurant complaining that the food here is lousy... and they give you such small portions. What's a writer to do?

First - realize that there are more choices that "more cliche or less character". Anytime both answers are wrong you need to come up with some more answers! We agree that we need more character in the story, but there is more than one way to add character. The reason why the thumbnails don't work is because the writer is trying to cram a whole character into a couple of seconds of screen time. The result is exaggerated character - cliche. A better method would be to use relationships to gradually expose character a little at a time. We don't need to know everything about a character in the first minute they are on screen - we can LEARN about character as the story unfolds.

But this is a war story, you say. After the first few minutes, it's wall-to-wall battle scenes, No room for characterization. Should we just stop the war so that a character can reminisce about their home life? Nope - that's taking us back to thumbnail sketch territory. We're going to expose character an entirely different way - through relationships.

THE RELATIONSHIP TOOL

Instead of a thumbnail up front or in some sort of flashback, by showing character through relationships we can learn about characters while on the run - as the story unfolds - and when the relationships and situations change we can show other aspects of the characters... and even show character change (and character arc). That makes "character through relationships" a great tool for material with lots of action or heavy plotting.

A great example of this method can be found in James Cameron's ALIENS. There are a dozen Space Marines in the film, plus Ripley, plus Bishop the android, plus Paul Reiser's Burke... yet we have a pretty good idea who all of them are. Each character is shown through their relationship with another character who contrasts with them. Because conflict is the fuel for story, by pairing all of the characters with their opposites Cameron ends up exposing character through conflict, PLUS creating a character arc for each of them. As the are forced to work with each other through the crisis (the aliens), we learn more about the characters as their relationships evolve. When android hating Ripley first meets Bishop she freaks:

                    RIPLEY
          You never said anything about an 
          android being here!

                    BISHOP
          I prefer the term "artificial person" 
          myself. Is there a problem?

As the crisis intensifies, Ripley and Bishop are forced to work together. When the team needs someone to remote land the shuttle, Ripley realizes the right man for the job isn't a man at all - it's Bishop. As the aliens take out team members one-by-one, Bishop, Ripley and Newt are the three left standing.. By the end of the film Bishop save her life, creating an emotional moment when she puts her hand on his shoulder and says:


               RIPLEY
          You did okay, Bishop.

A simple line, but given emotional power from the set up 90 pages earlier. We have seen the relationship between these two grow over the course of the film - we have seen them set aside their differences and actually become friends. So when Bishop gets torn in half, we forget he's an android... we even forget he's an actor... Bishop has become our friend just as he's become Ripley's friend. Unlike the man torn in half in BLACKHAWK DOWN, we care about Bishop.

PAIRS IN RELATIONSHIPS

Aliens DVD - Buy it!

Ripley also has a relationship with steely calm Marine Hicks (Michael Biehn) which helps expose both characters. Ripley is the civilian, Hicks is the ultimate Marine - lots of contrast between the two. Ripley is scared, Hicks is always cool. We would never know that Hicks has a sense of humor if it weren't for his relationship with Ripley. Initially Hicks objects to taking Ripley along on the mission, but as the conflict intensifies, their relationship grows. A key moment is when Hicks shows her how to use the pulse rifle - Ripley has gone from baggage Hicks thought he'd have to carry to an equal.

Hicks and Hudson are also paired in some scenes to show character. When they're introduced both are in uniform and almost impossible to tell apart ("Yes, Hicks?" "Hudson, sir. He's Hicks.") but when the conflict erupts we can see that these two are very different characters. Hicks is always cool and quiet, Hudson develops a motor-mouth when he's scared.


          HUDSON
     Well that's great! That's just 
     fucking great, man. Now what the
     fuck are we supposed to do, man?
     We're in some pretty real shit now!

          HICKS
     Are you finished?

We can see how calm Hicks is by comparing him to how panicked Hudson is. They bring out the character in each other whenever they are together... so Cameron keeps throwing them together in scene after scene. We may not know anything about Hudson's life back on Earth, but his behavior creates a fully fleshed out character. We really know him. When he's screaming "Game over man! Game over!" we laugh - but we also feel his panic. We care about him. Both Hudson and Hicks are real people because we've learned about them a little bit at a time as their relationship has developed over the course of the script.

But do we need to like the characters to care about them? The two most unlikable characters in ALIENS are tough female Marine Vasquez and wimpy new Lieutenant Gorman ("How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?" "Thirty-eight... simulated."). She's completely antagonistic, he's so pathetic it's hard to care about him. So Cameron sticks them together. They are opposites, and the contrast between the two brings their characters to the surface. Their relationship evolves throughout the script - hitting highs and lows. Nothing could be lower than when Gorman crashes the Armored Personnel Carrier - trapping them on the alien planet.


          VASQUEZ
     He's fucking dead!

She grabs Gorman by the collar, hauling him up roughly, 
ready to pulp him with her other fist.

          VASQUEZ
     Wake up pendejo! I'm gonna kill you,
     you useless fuck!

Hicks pushes her back. Right in her face.

          HICKS
     Hold it. Hold it. Back off right now.

Vasquez releases Gorman. His head smacks the deck.

Alien Quadrilogy DVD (shouldn't that be Quartet?) - Buy it!

Vasquez is aggressive, Gorman is ineffective (mostly because he's unconscious in that scene). But the script keeps throwing the two together, and each brings out the character in the other. This pays off when Vasquez and Gorman are trapped in an air duct together as an army of alien warriors approaches. She gives him the "power greeting" she only shares with a chosen few to show her respect. Gorman returns the greeting and hands her two grenades, keeping two for himself. When the creatures descend upon them, the two who were once enemies die together... as friends. And we care about both of them - we've come to know them and even like them. All through the power of relationships.

If BLACKHAWK DOWN had scuttled the thumbnail sketches and used *relationships* to expose characters, we may not have known which soldier has kids and which soldier's dad is overbearing and which soldier joined the army to help people... but we'd certainly know WHO they were even if we didn't know the details of their lives. We'd know what *kind of people* they were, even if we had no idea whether they could play the piano or not.

And when they died, we'd care.



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