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Script Success Factors 2 - Identification

how to create characters we identify with

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Comment by Geoff Hall on February 21, 2013 at 6:41am

Hi Tom,

Thanks for posting this, you raise some interesting issues of character development in film.

Identification is a fundamental issue for writers and film-makers. 

My feeling and thoughts about this are that we don't need to identify with each character to give them a believable role in the film. What gives them that is how they embody the values, beliefs, worldview that the writer/director had intended, that their lifestyle fleshes out those beliefs.

I think that your suggestion of developing characters which are 'somewhere between good and bad' is prone to making characters rather bland and unbelievable  After all, the world we see on our screens is projected through the magnifying glass of the lens, but what we don't want to achieve is the magnification of vapid, grey characters, because who wants to see, who identifies with such people?

The other interesting thing to note is how we film those characters. Do we just follow the technically well-prepared camera positions, lighting etc, or do we as Directors or DP's think about camera movement and editing of those characters which accentuate their character traits. After all, cinema is not just theatre on film!

A cursory note on Daniel. Whilst we do not have the personal details of Daniel's sexual struggles, I must admit to being able to identify with his 'character'. Working under the demands of a pagan king, of a conqueror, living in a foreign land (I moved from the north-east of England to the south-west!) and the mysterious media God communicates through. I think I understand the sense of alienation and working under pressure (oppression).

For writers who are christian, the big problem always seems to be that they struggle with the portrayal of evil. There is no point of a good girl set against unbelievable evil. Where is the sacrifice  why does she bother being concerned with such trite problems. I've been criticised in the past for making bad things too believable! I have a list garnered from people who all suggest that in my films there shouldn't be this or that. I generally counter with the question of how they read their bibles, it must be very selectively(!), because in that collection of books there's rape, murder, genocide, racism, sex and numerous references to warfare. 

However, it seems to me that we fall into the theatrical trap, the social realist trap of having to show this as it happens, as if we were documenting hate or misogyny. There are different ways, cinematic means of showing the truth of a character than just having them recite the f-word ad infinitum , or showing him seducing every woman he comes across ending with the ever predictable fondling and grunts and groans! Or dare I say it, showing a character shoot someone to make them a believable bad   person. We've ended up with a predictable palette of colours to paint our characters, character traits that border on Tourettes Syndrome! 

Comment by Key Payton on January 28, 2013 at 4:13pm

Dear Tom: As in my earlier comment on your "Script Success Factors 4" video, I again affirm all your suggestions for making the audience's main (point-of-view) character someone the primary audience can find "identification" with!

However, I again would insist that the "identity-forming" aspect of that main character is what most helps audiences identify with them, and thus even an "unlikable" main character can still intrigue and captivate audiences — if we understand HOW that MC gains his/her identity from those unlikable-by-other-people traits.

E.g., let's look at the German-made movies THE COUNTERFEITERS and THE LIVES OF OTHERS: The main character in the first is a frustrated Jewish artist willing to compromise greatly with the Nazis in order to stay alive. And in the second the MC is a long-loyal Stasi agent who seems willing to do almost anything to gather evidence against dissidents who might oppose East Germany's then-communist state.

But early in both stories, we are given details that help us see how the MC's identity is rooted in something we all can understand, even if we don't agree with how the MC is applying that "thing."

In the first case, we see early on how important "artistry" is to the Jewish compromiser; he finds his identity in it, and manages to hold onto that identity even as he goes from perfectly counterfeiting Allied currency for the Nazis to making sure his later counterfeited bills will never "pass" in Allied areas, thus making sure the Nazis will be found out.

In the second case, we learn quickly how the rigid Stasi agent finds identity in his ability to "get the truth out," initially in the way he ruthlessly compels anti-communist dissidents to "rat" on their friends. But later, as "the truth" he is determined to get starts revealing all the corrupt cracks in the GRD's communist facade, he becomes a behind-the-scenes "friend" to the dissidents, and eventually helps bring down his own communist boss.

So even though both these MCs start in roles that would tend to make us "dislike" them, we are still intrigued by them. Why? Because the scripts fairly quickly help us see how they do what's "unlikable" because it is DEEPLY attached to what gives them a reason to live and a sense of self, which are things we ALL crave throughout our lives.

So, I'm just adding to your urgings that Christian media writers create characters we can "identify" with, by encouraging us to go deeper and understand how even the most-"unlikable" characters are still powered and motivated by the identity-forming need for "meaning" and "purpose" and a "justifying reason" for their/our choices and actions.

What do you think, Tom?

Comment by J. Chris Wall on May 12, 2009 at 12:17pm
Thank you for sharing this solid insight! Very much enjoyed your discussion of challenges that often face Christian films. It seems to be at the root of this discussion of character that we find the honesty that truly creates that identification.
Comment by Les Butchart on April 15, 2009 at 10:23pm
Excellent advice. It's also important to get feedback from others about their likes and dislikes in our stories. I wrote a script with a main character I liked immensely, but no one else liked her. So I gave her a few positive characteristics according to what other people deemed positive and likable. If I hadn't, no one would have wanted to follow her through the story, or perhaps would have done so much reluctance.

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