WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

INCONSISTENT CHARACTERS


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How do you create a three dimensional character who live their own life and makes their own decisions without making them seem inconsistent? Real people don't always do the exact same thing, right? So shouldn't realistic characters show a variety of traits, characteristics and emotions? The key is to make sure the audience UNDERSTANDS the "inconsistencies". That they are motivated and within that character. The audience needs to be able to get a "handle" on your characters in order to relate to them. To see them as real human beings rather than plot devices. Characters can change - and often should change - but the audience needs to see the change and understand the change.

In Josh Singer's FIRST MAN, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is introduced as the perfect father and husband. He is constantly playing with his son and daughter, laughing and joking with them. This story is not about planting the flag on the moon, it's about the man who first walked on the moon, and his life leading up to the moon landing. Not about the moon landing at all - it's a very small part of the much larger story.

The story hits the ground running - starting with Armstrong flying an X-15 hypersonic aircraft to the very edge of outer space, only to have it spiral out of control when re-entering the atmosphere. Can he stabalize it before he crashes? Armstrong is an interesting character because he is not an Air Force flyboy, he's an *engineer* who is great at solving intellectual problems... like an out of control X-15. Later in the film, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) mentions that she married him because he was kind of a boring and dependable guy. Not the kind of person the audience might expect to end up as the first man to walk on the moon.

And it is their marriage and family life that are at the center of the story.

Armstrong goes from the perfect dad, playing with his son and daughter... to becoming so closed off and unemotional that he refuses to say goodbye to his children before leaving on the Apollo 11 mission - with Janet making it impossible for him to leave the house without talking to the kids first. Why did he change from world's greatest father to completely closed off? How could he change so much over the course of the story? Isn't that an inconsistent character? Perfect dad and husband in one scene, unemotional and distant in another?

That is the real story of FIRST MAN.

Because this perfect dad and loving husband loses his cute 3 year old daughter to a brain turmor early in the story... and as he moves farther along on the Gemini space program and then Apollo program and other astronauts are killed one after another, he pulls back all of his emotions. He becomes almost a human calculator. He doesn't want his surviving children to become too emotionally attached to him because odds are very good that he will die. And because the audience sees all of the scenes between the "great dad" and "emotionally withdrawn dad" they understand and empathize with him. This film is all about death. His three year old daughter dies. His friends die. He knows that he might die and does everything possible to avoid having that conversation with his two sons. How do you tell your kids that you probably won't be back?

So what might seem inconsistent if you only saw the early scenes and the later scenes is the emotional core of the story and the character. It all makes sense.

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In Kenneth Lonergan's YOU CAN COUNT ON ME Laura Linney plays a VERY organized bank loan officer (she has a complex filing system for her personal correspondence). Her brother played by Mark Ruffalo is a dope smoking drifter who has never been responsible a day in his life. Her brother comes to visit (and hit her up for a loan) at the same time her long time boyfriend finally proposes and her bank gets a new by-the-book manager. The by-the-book manager won't give her the 15 minutes a day off to pick up her son from school - that's against the rules.

She sees's her brother, who doesn't believe in rules, going through life without a care in the world. Certainly without the pressures she faces on a day-to-day basis. She wishes that she had that freedom, that lack of responsibility... because the responsibilities of her life are strangling her. Too much at once! So when her boyfriend presses her for an answer to his proposal... she has a fling with another man.

That fling isn't the thing an organized, responsible woman would do... But it makes sense to us, given the situation. She's feeling trapped - she wishes she had her care-free brother's life, so she does what her brother would do in the situation. We UNDERSTAND why she has the fling. It is motivated by a situation that the audience understands. Like the death of Neil Armstrong's daughter, the boyfriend suddenly asking her to marry him when everything else in her life is closing in on her is that strw that broke the camel's back. But the audience has seen all of the other "straws" so this is not some sudden change in character. It is understandable.

Imagine if she had just had a fling with another man without the audience experiencing all of the pressures of her life and without them seeing the "bad example" of her brother? What would we have thought of her?

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Which means - you can't just have a character do something that doesn't fit the character you've established. You have to SHOW US WHY they do it. You also have to show the DECISION that leads them to that "inconsistent" act. In order to identify with your characters we must understand them - it all comes down to motivation. If an act is motivated, we accept it as "realistic" and believable. Show your work! Show the audience the reason why your characters do unusual things, and they are no longer unusual. Your ultra-responsible bank loan officer can do the most irresponsible thing in the world, and we'll be right with them... if we undertsand why they did it.

In THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING Lajos Egri points out that "no honest man will becomes a thief overnight; no thief will become an honest man in the same period of time." He points out that good drama requires a character to go from one state to another (to grow, to change), but the change must be gradual. Here are his 14 steps that take a character from Love to Hatred:

1) Possessive love.
2) Disappointment.
3) Doubt.
4) Questioning.
5) Suspicion.
6) Testing.
7) Hurt.
8) Realization.
9) Bitterness.
10) Reevaluation and failure to adjust.
11) Anger.
12) Fury at self.
13) Fury at object of affection.
14) Hate.

If a character doesn't go step-by-step through each stage of the change it will seem as if their actions don't match their character. Imagine a scene where your hero is madly in love with the female lead... then he is bitter about the relationship in the next scene. What happened? Instead of seeing the way the relationship is changing, we see a guy who has gone wacko. His actions are inconsistent with the way they were in the previous scene. Character change is the most important thing in your script - so make sure you don't leave it out! If your loyal sidekick back-stabs your hero, you need to show us step-by-step how he changed from one state to the other.

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Ray Liotta's character seems to be consistent throughout Joe Carnahan's NARC... until we get to the end revelation. At that point, we are given two possible scenarios for the murder of Liotta's partner (the event the entire film is about) and both scenarios require major inconsistencies in some character. One scenario takes a character from friendship to anger without any steps in between, another takes a character from self preservation to self destruction without any steps in between, and another takes a character from doing the right thing no matter what to betraying everything he believes in without a single step in between. Because these jumps in character take place at the very end of the movie, they seem like a minor problem (and may not even be noticed by most audience members)... but the film is a mystery, so these character inconsistencies and seemingly unmotivated reactions effect the entire film. The events of the partner's murder is what the whole movie is about... so they need to make sense.

Whether your character is an Astronaut or a Bank Teller or a Cop, you need to SHOW US WHY characters do things including the DECISION that leads them to that "inconsistent" act. Don't jump from one state to another - show all of the steps that character took in between. Each step takes them closer to their final state. Skipping a few steps makes it seem as if the character LEVITATED up the steps... and that feels false. If an act is motivated, we accept it as "realistic" and believable. So show your work! Take each character step-by-step. If you show the audience the reason why your characters do unusual things, and they are no longer unusual... they are just those little things that happen to us in life that slightly alter our direction.



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