FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

SYMBOLIC CHARACTERS


Film is a visual medium, a *dramatic* medium, and that requires conflict that we can see. If we look at the movies playing this weekend we see a bunch of physical conflict - from FANTASTIC BEASTS to BAD SANTA 2. But what should we do when we have a story where the conflict is more internal and emotional? Well, the first thing I'd suggest is to write it as a novel.

If I were to make a list of top 5 internal conflict movies of all time, HIGH FIDELITY would be on it. HIGH FIDELITY began as a novel by Nick Hornby, but there are lessons we can learn from the adaptation... methods of dramatizing internal conflict so that it can be seen on the screen. First - the movie does something completely unusual. It's not Voice Over, it's not Narrated, the protagonist actually talks to the audience throughout the film. It's as if we're his best friend, or maybe his shrink. He spends the whole film talking to us - even when other characters are present. It's not a Woody Allen aside - it's the whole danged film! Though this gives us a way to know what the protagonist is thinking, it isn't *dramatic* and film is a dramatic medium. See, we need a way to *show* that internal conflict - to turn thoughts into something concrete.

HIGH FIDELITY is about a typical Hornby man-child struggling with responsibility. Society wants Rob (John Cusack) to grow up - to put on a suit and tie and get a real job - but he just wants to run his little Chicago record store. Champion Records specializes in *vinyl* - because records have a more realistic sound quality than CDS. Rob loves making Top 5 Lists and compilation tapes of *his* favorite songs to give to people. He is the king of his little universe instead of participating in everybody else's universe. "You guys are snobs!" a customer tells him. "You're totally elitists. You feel like the unappreciated scholars, so you shit on the people who know less than you." "Which is everybody," Rob answers. At Champion Records Rob is king - no reason to join society when you're king, right? Rob's own mother thinks it's time for him to find a real job and grow up - but Rob is happy just the way he is...

Until his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) pulls the plug on his existence and moves out.

Now Rob is going through one of those What Does It All Mean? things - reassessing his life. He's broken hearted and depressed - but both of those are *internal* conflicts. Why does he have such bad luck with women? Why is his life in constant turmoil? The struggle is going on inside Rob, but we can't see that and film is a visual medium. So we need to find ways to dramatize that conflict - to externalize it. On film, if we can't see the conflict, it doesn't exist. So all of the characters in the script end up symbolizing different aspects of the conflict within. You MUST have a conflict we can SEE in your script. You MUST figure out ways to SHOW THE STRUGGLE. That means you need to DRAMATIZE emotional conflict - to turn what happens in a character's heart and mind into actions (and interactions with characters) that demonstrate this emotional conflict. The best way to do that is to create characters which are symbols for Rob's problems.

CONTRAST CHARACTERS

The reason why Laura left him was because he's self-centered and refuses to grow up. He's irresponsible. I've done tips in the past on contrast, and that's the tool we're going to use to illuminate these problems within Rob. Laura didn't just leave Rob, she left him for another man - Ian (Tim Robbins). Ian is a symbolic antagonist - he has all of the qualities that Rob is lacking. Ian is a caring, nurturing therapist who cooks and provides a shoulder for Laura to cry on. He's understanding, he's mature, he has a real job. Ian used to live in the apartment above Rob & Laura, but he's since moved into a much nicer apartment... which is where Laura goes to when she moves out of Rob's place.

After Laura leaves Rob, he embarks on a massive project - reorganizing his record collection. Not alphabetically, not by year, he's organizing it "autobiographically" - based on when *he* first heard the song. Talk about self-centered!

On film, you have to find ways to SHOW THE CONFLICT - so "man against himself" conflicts won't work on their own. You need to have something physical the protagonist can struggle with - that may be a "personification" of the conflict like Ian. He's a symbolic antagonist. The reason why Laura moved out is what Rob *isn't* - but you can't show what a character *isn't* - so you create a character who *is* those things. Instead of Laura just moving out, she moves in with Ian (the anti-Rob).

Laura makes $60 thousand a year - she has a grown up law job. Ian is a therapist who makes enough to move into a better neighborhood. Rob's record store is so successful that he has to borrow $5 thousand from Laura and hasn't been able to pay it back.

Ian is a symbol of what Laura wants Rob to become.... just without the ponytail and karate class pictures. Even in though Ian is in very few scenes, his *character* is present from the very beginning. He is Rob's rival for Laura's love. Ian is all of the things that Rob hates - because they are the changes Rob *knows* he needs to make in himself. He's fighting those changes... and he's fighting Ian for Laura's love. If your hero's character arc is to grow up you need someone who *has* grown up so that we can see the struggle. Rob is in a battle with Ian for Laura's love. Remove Ian and how can we see the battle?

MIRROR CHARACTERS

Another method would be to have a mirror character - someone else who has the exact same emotional problems as Rob. You know how we can't stand people who have the same flaws as we have? Mirror characters are a way for Rob to struggle with his surrogate self and come to realize his own faults.

Rob has two connected internal problems - his relationships with women and his anti-social attitude. Both are symptoms of his refusal to grow up. In order to create a way for Rob to struggles with these two aspects of himself, we give him a pair of employees.

Dick (Todd Louiso) is shy and paranoid around women. He is afraid of becoming involved in a relationship for fear that he'll get hurt. He mirrors Rob's relationship problems - his broken heart, his fear of being hurt in a relationship, and his weird paranoia that he's just not worthy of any of the women he's gone out with. Though we get to see this aspect of Rob first hand in his flashback relationship with Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones), the character of Dick allows us a reference point throughout the film.

Barry (Jack Black) insults customers, comes to work late and is fun and totally immature. Barry is about as anti-social as you can get. He's an exaggeration of Rob's flaws. Rob is a music snob - Barry actually chases off customers who don't have his taste. Rob isn't ambitious enough to change his life, Barry isn't even ambitious enough to show up at his slacker job on time. Barry has a dream of fronting a band - but is afraid to do anything about it. He's rather be a minimum wage slave than take a chance on doing something better. Those are all Rob's flaws! As Rob struggles to turn Barry into a more responsible employee, he's really struggling with his own flaws. Can he see himself from Laura's and realize that he needs to mature?

Mirror characters can work two ways - you can use them as the unchanging "control" in order to show how your protagonist is changing... or you can have them change in order to show how your protagonist is stuck in a rut. HIGH FIDELITY uses the mirror characters as a catalyst for Rob's change. All three are stuck in the same rut, stuck in the same store... but Dick and Barry begin to mature - leaving Rob behind.

Dick forces himself to overcome his fears of relationships by asking out Anna (Sara Gilbert), a customer who likes the same music as he does. Barry puts his anti-social behavior on hold long enough to talk to a musician about forming a band. Up until this point he has insulted any musician who approached him. When he stops being anti-social, Barry lowers his walls of self defense and is able to access his dreams. This is the lesson that Rob needs to learn.

There's a great scene in the movie where Rob suggests the three of them go out to a club, but Barry says he can't - he's got to write lyrics for his band, and Dick says he can't - he's got a date with Anna. Rob is left alone in his store while his mirror characters move on with their lives. This scene ends with a great moment - as Rob is locking up he sees Dick and Anna across the street kissing. Talk about rubbing it in! Rob realizes what he doesn't have by seeing his mirror character obtain it. That acts as a catalyst - Rob realizes he must change in order to be happy. He must get over his fear of relationships and lower his defensive walls and take a chance on his dream.

Rob has a Top 5 List of dream jobs - and two of the jobs are producing records. Of course, he's stuck in a rut working at his record store. Producing records would involve working with others, and he's too anti-social for that.

The next day he hears a music tape made by the skateboard kids who hang around outside his store, likes what he hears, and goes out and signs them to his record label. Record label? What record label? Rob has stopped being anti-social long enough to figure out that he has the connections to start his own label. He's going to put out a CD (not a vinyl album) and put his music knowledge to good use. Instead of just talking about music, he's going to *do something*. This is the first step in Rob's maturing process, which ends with him winning Laura back and asking if she'll marry him.

"I've started to make a tape in my head for Laura. Full of stuff *she'd* like. Full of stuff that would make *her* happy. For the first time, I can sort of see how that's done." Rob has been transformed rom a guy who only thinks about what is important to him into a guy who thinks about what is important to others. He's learned what love really is... and grown up. We SEE this happening through the use of symbolic characters.

Symbolic Antagonists - DIFFERENT than protagonist - contrast the protagonist to show what they need to become, what they need to learn, or (sometimes) the protagonist's attributes.

Mirror Characters - SIMILAR to protagonist - have exaggerated versions of the protagonist's flaws, so that the protagonist has to deal with those flaws externally. Sometimes a Mirror Character contains the protagonist's attributes, and can be used to show the protagonist taking the wrong road and getting into trouble.

Symbolic Characters are a great way to take an internal struggle and dramatize it. To take a "man against himself" conflict and turn it into situations where different aspects of that self are represented by different characters - so that we can SEE the struggle.

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