. . . there is no such thing [as character]. It doesn’t exist. The character is just habitual action. ‘Character’ is exactly what the person literally does in pursuit of the superobjective.” — David Mamet1
If we take Mamet at his word, I guess we can stop here. There’s no such thing as character. End transmission.
Of course, we can’t and won’t end the conversation there. Mamet is nothing if not a provocateur, and his declaration on the death of character as a concept cannot be taken too seriously. The question of “character” and its role in dramatic narrative, however, has provoked raging debate ever since Aristotle declared it subsidiary to plot more than 2,300 years ago. The question is three-fold: what is a character, how do characters function, and how (in the case of the screenplay) do readers perceive their functioning? None of these questions are easy to engage, but they are essential to understanding the workings of a screenplay.
Before proceeding further, we must acknowledge the different methods analysts have taken in their studies of character. While these methods differ, they are not mutually exclusive, and readers may utilize multiple methods in their analyses. According to narratologist Uri Margolin, characters may be viewed as either (1) literary artifice, (2) non-actual individuals, or (3) text-based mental constructs.2 The first view approaches character as merely one aesthetic quality of a text and nothing more. The study of character, therefore, is merely a study of the words on the page. The second view approaches character through a game of make-believe that supposes that characters exist in some imaginary realm. This is the most common approach and the way most readers interact with characters. The third and final view is somewhat of a hybrid. It treats characters not as mere words on a page nor as imaginary existents but as complex, textually-dependent psychological constructs in the mind of the reader. In other words, readers participate in character creation when they read the words in the text and give those characters life. As we continue, we will see how each of these approaches has subliminally shaped our thinking about character.
- 3.5.1. Overview
- 3.5.2. Founding Principles
- 3.5.3. Praxis as the Function of Character: Micro and Macro Behavior
- 3.5.4. Non-Verbal Behavior as Praxis
- 3.5.5. Verbal Behavior as Praxis
- 3.5.6. Habitual Action
- 3.5.7. Character as Praxis vs. Characterization & Environment
- 3.5.8. Character and Premise
- 3.5.9. Discussion Topics
- 3.5.10. Footnotes
3.5.2. Founding Principles. [Back to Page Topics]
Influential thinkers and artists, such as Mamet above, have long drawn from Aristotle in their disparagement of character. Perhaps the key passages of Poetics are these: (1) “Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of action and of life,” (2) “Furthermore, there could not be a tragedy without action, but there could be one without character,” and (3) “So the plot is the source and (as it were) the soul of tragedy; character is second.”3 Taken together, these passages seem to make clear that the characters of a given dramatic narrative are nowhere near as important as its plot. The question remains, however, whether these three arguments should be “taken together” at all.
At question is what Aristotle means by “character” (again, our key question: what is a character?). Most people, if asked, would define characters as “persons,” so they may see no distinction between Aristotle’s first statement about “persons” and the other two statements about “character.” This is a problem of translation.
The Greek word here translated as persons is “ἄνθρωπος” (anthropos, i.e. man) while the word translated as character is “ἦθος” (ethos, i.e. moral disposition). Given this, we realize Aristotle is making several completely different arguments. His first point is that tragedy is not intended to imitate men but action, that is, tragedy is not about biography but about drama. The second point is about how drama is produced. Drama is not produced through depictions of moral dispositions but through depictions of change. Change cannot, in fact, exist without action, but can exist without morality. His third point follows from the first two: plot — as an organization of active, changing events — is therefore the primary source of meaning in tragedy. Morality is secondary and plays a supporting role.
“Character” as it is used in Poetics is not synonymous with characters and does not answer our question of what is a character? Narratologist Uri Margolin defines a character as a “storyworld participant” or narrative agent.4 These narrative agents cause and/or experience the events that define a narrative, and their experiences orient a reader’s attention and understanding. This definition of character as narrative agent is a useful starting point upon which we can build as we go forward.
Before we address the ways in which characters function, it may be easier to address how audiences perceive their functioning. Here Aristotle is quite helpful and his hierarchy of action over ethos begins to make sense. Aristotle writes, “It is on the basis of people’s character and reasoning that we say that their actions are of a certain kind, and in respect of their actions that people enjoy success or failure.”5 An alternative translation may be clearer: “thought and character are the two natural causes from which actions spring.”6
The key Greek here is “πρᾶξις” (praxis, i.e. the deeds of men), “ἦθος” (ethos, i.e. the moral dispositions of men), and “διάνοια” (dianoia, i.e. the logical reasoning of men). Aristotle is arguing that while we know the nature of a character by his or her actions, those actions spring directly from the character’s morality and ability to reason. A morally good person with flawed thinking may produce bad deeds. A bad person with good logic may succeed in his or her evil deeds without being caught, while a bad person with flawed logic may create his or her own downfall.
Praxis, ethos, and dianoia form the three-pronged center of every narrative agent, but in the dramatic mediums of theatre and film, audiences only know a character’s morality and reasoning by the actions he or she takes. Literary works such as novels can bypass praxis to delve much more deeply into ethos and dianoia in a way that theatre and film cannot. Screenplays, in so far as they are literary works intended to evoke the dramatic visual medium of film, tend not to reveal a character’s ethos or dianoia independent of his or her praxis.
With the basics out of the way, we can now take a detailed look at the functioning of character in screenplays.
3.5.3. Praxis as the Function of Character: Micro and Macro Action. [Back to Page Topics]
At the beginning of Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (the character) discusses the movie potential of Susan Orleans’ non-fiction best-seller, The Orchid Thief, with a Hollywood executive named Valerie. Kaufman tells her, “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.”7
Kaufman’s desire to exclude praxis from his screenplay forms the spine of Adaptation, a path that ultimately leads him into the hands of real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee. “Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens?” Kaufman asks. “Where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated, and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world.”8
McKee is incredulous:
. . . nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it! For Christ’s sake, a child watches a mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”9
In the end, Kaufman (the screenwriter) adds to Adaptation all the elements he hoped to exclude: sex, guns, car chases, etc. In their search for a mode of screenwriting discourse absent of praxis, both Kaufmans — the real and imagined — are failures.
Kaufman’s ultimate solution to the problem of Adaptation mirrors many screenwriters’ attitudes toward the demand for action in the screenplay. Action, many assume, means external action — praxis on a macro scale. Many screenwriters, however, — including Kaufman — have proven themselves to be masters of micro action. Action, after all, is nothing more than behavior, and dramatic behavior encompasses everything from car chases to a stolen glance. The demand for action is nothing more than a demand that characters act — they must exhibit behavior, through which their ethos and dianoia may be revealed. Macro actions (the decision to sacrifice one’s life for another, the decision to cheat on one’s spouse) are self-evidently the product of conscious choices. Micro actions, however, may be intentional or unwitting and often produce the most interesting subtext in a script.
Screenwriter William Goldman, in discussing subtext, references an example from Raymond Chandler: “A man and his wife are riding silently upward in an elevator. They are silent, the woman carries her purse, the man has his hat on. The elevator stops at an intermediate floor. A pretty girl gets on. The man takes his hat off.”10
While such a subtle gesture is not what is normally conjured up when we think of action in the Aristotelian sense, it nevertheless speaks volumes about the character who performs the behavior and destabilizes the equilibrium of the storyworld — both tell-tale signs of praxis at work. This is action on the micro scale, almost imperceptible, and it can often be as powerful a storytelling tool as the more obvious examples of macro action that we see in many mainstream Hollywood “hero’s journey”-styled narratives.
3.5.4. Non-Verbal Behavior as Praxis. [Back to Page Topics]
Claudia Sternberg explores such micro actions (as the removal of the hat discussed above) in detail when she discusses the modes of non-verbal behavior in the screenplay, of which she identifies three: “They include kinesics (body movements such as gestures and actions, facial expression, glance and eye contact, automatic physiological reactions), haptics (touch behavior), and proxemics (spatial relationships).”11
According to Barbara Korte, the screenwriter’s use of these micro behavioral cues:
. . . makes it possible [for the reader] to draw conclusions about the feelings, thoughts, personality structures and attitudes of the persons interacting with one another. It informs us of the social status of the characters and the social roles they play when they come in contact with each other, and allows us to see the power relationships between them; it communicates even the finest nuances of interpersonal attraction or repulsion and serves to steer the interaction in a ritualized way.”12
Effective use of non-verbal behavior in screenwriting is also a key tool writers have at their disposal in aid of creating life-like characters. According to one 1971 UCLA study conducted by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, up to 55% of any conversation’s meaning is transmitted not by words or vocal inflection but by the body language of those speaking.13 Sternberg explains that any non-verbal behavior may be categorized as either an “emotional display (spontaneous physical expression for momentary psychological moods)” or an “externalizer (information about stable dispositions, opinions, attitudes, features and interpersonal relationships beyond their temporary state).”14 In screenwriting, these behaviors may also be divided between naturalistic (striving for realism) and formalized (striving for dramatic convention) behavioral cues.15
Viewers of television’s now-canceled Lie to Me are already familiar with the science of kinesics. The “Micro Expressions” that the fictional Lightman Group use each episode to detect deception are a real, documented, physiological phenomenon observed by Paul Ekman.16 These “Micro Expressions,” however, are only a small piece of the kinesic puzzle. While Ekman’s work proves that some kinesic responses are universal and automatic, other kinesic behaviors are culturally conditioned. Eye contact, in particular, carries differing connotations depending on culture.17 Gestures (particularly obscene ones) are also sometimes culturally contingent.18
Haptic or touch behavior can also reveal character in interesting ways. Haptic researchers have divided touch behavior into five categories based on the relationship between the parties and the situation in which the touching takes place.19 These categories include: (1) Functional/Professional, covering the haptics exchanged between co-workers, employers and employees, providers and clients, etc.; (2) Social/Polite, covering the haptics exchanged between strangers or acquaintances in the public sphere; (3) Friendship/Warmth, covering the haptics exchanged between good friends and family members in a comfortable setting; (4) Love/Intimacy, covering the haptics exchanged in public displays of affection between romantically linked partners; and (5) Sexual/Arousal, covering the haptics exchanged in private between sexual partners.
Others have grouped haptic behaviors by the meaning they communicate: (1) Positive Effect touches that convey support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual interest, or affection; (2) Playful touches that convey either playful affection or playful aggression; (3) Control touches that convey compliance, attention-getting, or announcing a response; (4) Ritualistic touches such as those that convey greetings and departures; (5) Task-Related touches that convey references to appearance or intrinsic to a task; and (6) Accidental touches.20
Finally, we have proxemics, or the study of spatial relationships. Proxemic studies have identified four key spatial zones: (1) Intimate space for kisses, whispers, and embraces; (2) Personal space for interactions with family and close friends; (3) Social space for polite interaction with acquaintances; and (4) Public space for our interactions with everyone else.21 As characters move in and out of each other’s proxemic zones, they reveal something of the relationships they share with one another.
Perhaps the most famous use of proxemics in cinema is the breakfast table sequence in Citizen Kane. Though the scene does not appear in the versions of the screenplay available online and may have been improvised by director Orson Welles on set, it nevertheless exposes the vast potential of proxemics for communicating meaning to an audience. Through a short sequence of cuts and little more than physical distance, Welles tells the story of an entire marriage, as husband and wife gradually sit farther and farther apart at the breakfast table.
A fourth important aspect of non-verbal communication not discussed by Sternberg is paralanguage, “which includes intonation, emphasis, word and syllable stress, and so on.”22 Screenwriters are often discouraged from including specific paralanguage cues in their writing, as the result often has the effect of a line-reading for an actor, something few actors appreciate and most will ignore. When used sparingly and appropriately, however, paralanguage can be a useful tool. Consider this passage from When Harry Met Sally:
INT. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM — DUSK Harry and Sally are walking through the Egyptian temple exhibit. HARRY (in a funny voice) I’ve decided for the rest of the day we’re going to talk like this. SALLY (trying to imitate him) Like this. HARRY (funny voice) Repeat after me. SALLY (trying to imitate him) Repeat after me. HARRY (funny voice) May I have some pepper. SALLY (trying to imitate him) May I have some pepper. HARRY (funny voice) Pepper. SALLY (trying to imitate) Pepper. HARRY (funny voice) Pepper. SALLY (laughing, still trying) Pepper. HARRY (funny voice) May I have some pepper on my paprikash. SALLY (trying to imitate) May I have some pepper on my paprikash. HARRY (funny voice) I think I’ll have some tomato juice. SALLY (imitating) I think I’ll have some tomato juice. HARRY (funny voice) Do you want to go to a movie tonight? SALLY (imitating) Do you want to go to a movie tonight? HARRY (funny voice) No. Answer the question. Do you want to go to a movie tonight? SALLY (in her regular voice) I’d love to Harry, but I can’t. HARRY (still in funny voice) What do you have, a hot date? SALLY As a matter of fact, I do. HARRY (in his regular voice) Really?
The meaning of this scene — Harry’s reaction to the news that Sally is dating again — is not fully conveyed by the dialogue alone. It is Harry’s sudden drop of the silly voice that communicates the impact of the unexpected news of Sally’s date.
Let us now examine how all four aspects of non-verbal behavior we’ve discussed may be implemented in screenwriting. At the Mid-Point of The Empire Strikes Back,23 a high-stakes power-grab emerges between Leia and Han, a conflict on which the entire narrative turns. In a script full of shootouts and battles, this central turning point forgoes extravagant macro action to focus on the tête-à-tête of a man and woman vying for emotional control. Leia, a leader in the Rebellion, cannot afford to relinquish control of her emotions to Han, the man who desires her romantic acknowledgment. Each character’s arc is at stake, and the scene frames the conflict in the dialogue exchanged between the two characters and especially in their non-verbal behavior.
INT. MILLENNIUM FALCON - MAIN HOLD AREA [. . . scene abridged . . .] Leia finishes welding the valves she has been working on and attempts to reengage the system by pulling a lever attached to the valve. It doesn't budge. Han notices her struggle, and moves to help her. She rebuffs him. HAN Hey, Your Worship, I'm only trying to help. LEIA (still struggling) Would you please stop calling me that? Han hears a new tone in her voice. He watches her pull on the lever. HAN Sure, Leia. LEIA Oh, you make it so difficult sometimes. HAN I do, I really do. You could be a little nicer, though. (he watches her reaction) Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I'm all right. She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand. LEIA Occasionally... (a little smile, haltingly) ... when you aren't acting like a scoundrel. HAN (laughs) Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that. With that, Han takes her hand and starts to massage it. LEIA Stop that. HAN Stop what? Leia is flushed, confused. LEIA Stop that! My hands are dirty. HAN My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of? LEIA (looking right into his eyes) Afraid? Han looks at her with a piercing look. He's never looked more handsome, more dashing, more confident. He reaches out slowly and takes Leia's hand again from where it is resting on a console. He draws it toward him. HAN You're trembling. LEIA I'm not trembling. Then with an irresistible combination of physical strength and emotional power, the space pirate begins to draw Leia toward him ... very slowly. HAN You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life. Leia is now very close to Han and as she speaks, her voice becomes an excited whisper, a tone completely in opposition to her words. LEIA I happen to like nice men. HAN I'm a nice man. LEIA No, you're not. You're... He kisses her now, with slow, hot lips. He takes his time, as though he had forever, bending her body backward. She has never been kissed like this before, and it almost makes her faint. When he stops, she regains her breath and tries to work up some indignation, but finds it hard to talk. Suddenly, Threepio appears in the doorway, speaking excitedly. THREEPIO Sir, sir! I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling. Han turns slowly, icily, from their embrace. HAN Thank you. Thank you very much. THREEPIO Oh, you're perfectly welcome, sir. The moment spoiled, Han marches out after Threepio.
This scene derives much of its subtextual power from the non-verbal behavior contained in its plentiful stage directions. It incorporates all three modes described by Sternberg as well as examples of paralanguage (“Han hears a new tone in her voice.”), making no fewer than five references to gaze, three to facial expressions, and numerous others to touch, gesture, and proximity.
The scene begins as “Leia finishes welding the valves she has been working on and attempts to reengage the system by pulling a lever attached to the valve. It doesn’t budge.” The text notes Han’s gaze as he watches Leia (“Han notices her struggle,”) and his proxemic response (“and moves to help her”). Why does Han move to help Leia before asking if his help is desired? If Han’s motivation is “to help,” he should offer his help verbally before stepping in to undermine Leia. As we noted above, however, Leia’s control is at stake, and if Han wants to seize it from Leia, he’ll take it without asking. His choice must be understood as an exertion of his power and a threat to Leia’s. Her reaction (“She rebuffs him.”) shows that she understands his tactic.
The scene’s turning point comes in the form of a parenthetical dialogue cue. “You could be a little nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I’m all right,” he says, to which she replies, “Occasionally . . . when you aren’t acting like a scoundrel.”
This plain reading of the dialogue omits three stage directions that, when injected, clarify the exchange of behaviors. The first, “he watches her reaction” is an expression of gaze or kinesic behavior. That Han watches Leia’s reaction as he delivers his line reveals a moment of vulnerability. He drops his guard and pleads for some positive reassurance from Leia. The second, “She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand” encompasses both touch and gesture or haptic and kinesic behavior. It acts as a pause in dialogue, demonstrating Leia’s delayed response to Han as she searches for an answer. The third, “a little smile” reports and describes Leia’s facial expression or kinesic behavior. Leia, who has up to this point blocked each of Han’s advancements, makes a huge tactical error with this smile. Her line — “Occasionally . . . when you aren’t acting like a scoundrel” — is a blow-off, but her expression — “a little smile” — is an opening. She hasn’t entirely dropped her guard, but she has answered Han’s request for reassurance.
In the exchanges of behavior that follow, Leia never recovers the ground she has lost with this simple smile. The opening she has offered is enough for Han to force his way into Leia’s emotional center and wrestle control from her. Leia’s stumble will continue through to her final scene with Han, in which she confesses her love, in response to which Han utters his most famous (and famously unscripted) line, “I know.”
This exchange exhibits wonderfully how praxis on the micro scale in the form of non-verbal expressions can shape an entire dramatic turn in screenwriting. Car chases aren’t always needed when a smile might do.
3.5.5. Verbal Behavior as Praxis. [Back to Page Topics]
Oddly, Aristotle’s emphasis on the importance of praxis has long been coupled with film theory’s traditional distaste for dialogue as a primary site for meaning in cinematic narrative, and this coupling has resulted in a distortion that places action in opposition to speaking. Certainly, passive, on-the-nose speeches, in which characters didactically reveal their inner emotional states, do fail to artfully produce the drama that praxis reliably delivers, but active speech — as the term implies — is no less praxis than any physical action. Indeed, philosopher Hannah Arendt goes so far as to declare that, “No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action.”24 While Arendt isn’t discussing drama, let alone screenwriting, her observation is nevertheless apt, as it reminds us of a fact we should not forget: the truths of drama are the truths of life.
Praxis is not only how readers perceive characters in a screenplay, it is how human beings perceive other human beings. Arendt continues:
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world . . . This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is — his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide — is implicit in everything somebody says and does.”25
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is no mere collection of words. It is a bold instance of decisive, historical praxis. Instances of active speech such as this can be revelatory in nature, and this is no less true for screenwriting than it is for life.
In his incisive analysis of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross, Kevin Alexander Boon makes a persuasive argument that dialogue can effectively meet the criteria for praxis:
Action tells more about character than dialogue only when the dialogue to which we are referring is didactic. . . . Dialogue can take on the characteristics of action. Active dialogue is as much about where it is occurring and between whom it is occurring as it is about what is being said. Like action, it is context-driven. . . . Unlike the externally determined conclusions drawn from didactic dialogue, conclusions drawn from active dialogue are internally determined, thus increasing the audience’s personal involvement with the overall production of meaning.”26
Active dialogue, Boon argues, is no mere string of words but a dialectic discourse between engaged parties vying for the upper-hand. A well-written conversation can be an as effective conveyor of praxis as a duel or a dance. This is certainly seen in the exchange between Han and Leia observed above. In Glengarry Glenn Ross, a script about salesmen, each character is always (“always be closing“) selling the other characters. One would be hard pressed to find a single exchange of dialogue in Mamet’s script in which one character is not trying to persuade another to buy what he’s selling.
It certainly helps when active dialogue is part of the character’s job description, but it isn’t necessary. In this exchange from the Coen brothers’ Fargo, Jerry — the salesman — finds himself on the defensive as Carl begins to take control from him:
JERRY ... So I guess that's it, then. Here's the keys - CARL No, that's not it, Jerry. JERRY Huh? CARL The new vehicle, plus forty thousand dollars. JERRY Yah, but the deal was, the car first, see, then the forty thousand, like as if it was the ransom. I thought Shep told you - CARL Shep didn't tell us much, Jerry. JERRY Well, okay, it's - CARL Except that you were gonna be here at 7:30. JERRY Yah, well, that was a mix-up, then. CARL Yeah, you already said that. JERRY Yah. But it's not a whole pay- in-advance deal. I give you a brand-new vehicle in advance and - CARL I'm not gonna debate you, Jerry. JERRY Okay. CARL I'm not gonna sit here and debate. I will say this though: what Shep told us didn't make a whole lot of sense. JERRY Oh, no, it's real sound. It's all worked out.
In the boxing match that is this exchange of active dialogue, it is immediately clear to us that Jerry probably isn’t the best salesman on the car lot and that it probably isn’t as “all worked out” as he claims. Jerry quickly reveals himself to be inept and easily man-handled in conversation. A character who so easily fails at the verbal level of praxis isn’t likely to succeed in his larger schemes and physical actions. Jerry’s just destined for calamity.
3.5.6. Habitual Action. [Back to Page Topics]
Habit may seem diametrically opposed to dramatic praxis, but in fact, habitual action has a vital expository role to play in most screenplays. One cannot introduce disequilibrium if there is no equilibrium to disrupt.
John August’s drug-fueled Go begins by establishing protagonist Rona’s miserable day job (“Containers of frozen orange juice spin endlessly on the conveyor belt. Ronna Martin — the girl in the ditch — is bagging groceries.”) before sending her on her rave scene odyssey. Similarly, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s Election uses habitual action to reveal just how ordinary their protagonist is before a series of extraordinary actions upend his entire life:
Jim is at the blackboard finishing writing: EXECUTIVE, CONGRESSIONAL, JUDICIARY. He begins to draw a triangle connecting the three words. DISSOLVE TO: Jim at the blackboard finishing the same diagram but in DIFFERENT CLOTHES. He repeats this process TWO MORE TIMES.
While habitual action is more or less limited to act one exposition in archplot screenwriting, it can become the subject of the script. Italian neorealist screenwriter and film theorist Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D) explains the neorealist approach to screenwriting as follows: “In most films, the adventures of two people looking for somewhere to live, for a house, would be shown externally in a few moments of action, but for us it could provide the scenario for a whole film, and we would explore all its echoes, all its implications.”27 Such an approach is unusual in the American tradition, but some independent writer/directors (e.g. Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater) have tried it.
3.5.7. Character as Praxis vs. Characterization & Environment. [Back to Page Topics]
“TRUE CHARACTER,” writes McKee in caps for emphasis, “is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” This sums up nicely everything we’ve explored in terms of praxis and character, but characters do not cease to exist when they are at rest. Action may be the best way to express character, but characters exist beyond action. Don’t they? McKee is choosy about his words:
Characterization [not character] is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes — all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out.”
In other words, according to McKee, narrative agents are distinct from their distinguishing characteristics but not from their actions. Characterization is merely the decorative vessel through which action operates. This is an interesting way of looking at character, but does it gel with Aristotle’s observations as discussed above? Ethos and dianoia, after all, fall within McKee’s category of characterization. Are they merely decorative elements?
What McKee views as decorative, Lajos Egri views as foundational. He refers to characterization as the “bone structure” of true character. “Human beings,” Egri writes, “have an additional three dimensions: physiology, sociology, psychology. Without knowledge of these three dimensions we cannot appraise a human being.”28 Egri builds on common sense observations to build his case that characterization determines action, whether physiologically (“a sick man sees health as a supreme good”), sociologically (“if [. . .] your playground was the dirty city street, your reactions would differ from those of the boy who was born in a mansion”), or psychologically (“ambition, frustration, temperament, attitudes, complexes”).29 Just as human beings are more than the sum of their actions, so, posits Egri, are characters.
Egri also argues that “Character and environment are so closely interrelated that we have to consider them as one.”30 By environment, Egri means more than mere habitat. He refers to the entire state of equilibrium that surrounds a character at the beginning of a story. Environment is everything outside of the character that constitutes his routine existence. “The smallest disturbance of [a character’s] well-ordered life will ruffle his placidity and create a mental upheaval, just as a stone which the surface of a pond will create far-reaching rings of motion.”31
This assertion levels a serious challenge to McKee’s dismissal of environment as just another level of characterization. Either true character is only perceptible to the audience through action, or environment — locations, set decoration, wardrobe, etc. — is capable of conveying interior states of character to the audience in the absence of action. We cannot hope to settle this debate here. Suffice it to say that character is not as clean-cut a concept in screenplay theory as pedagogical convention has heretofore suggested.
3.5.8. Character and Premise. [Back to Page Topics]
Theme also shapes character, and Egri’s conception of premise can be particularly useful in an analysis of character motivations.
If a screenplay has a clear premise, the protagonist must either (a) personally hold that premise to be true, or (b) personally hold an opposing premise to be true. If the script’s premise is “Love conquers jealousy,” for instance, an effective character will either: believe from the beginning that love conquers jealousy and over the course of the plot face opposing forces that threaten this premise; or believe from the beginning that “Jealousy conquers love,” but over the course of the plot encounters events that persuade him/her to embrace the opposite premise. Likewise, the antagonist must hold a premise that is opposite of the protagonist’s in order for conflict to exist. This assumes that characters behave rationally on the basis of their personally held beliefs and that they are capable of learning and changing as a result of their experiences.
3.5.9. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]
The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.
- Literary Artifice
- Non-Actual Individuals
- Text-Based Mental Constructs
- Non-Verbal Behavior
- Verbal Behavior
- Active Dialogue
- Didactic Dialogue
- Bone Structure
- What did Aristotle really mean when he said that action is more important than character?
- How do praxis, ethos, and dianoia work together to construct character?
- How can we expand our notion of praxis beyond traditional conceptions of action?
- How do non-verbal behaviors convey subtext?
- Under what circumstances can dialogue be considered action?
- Why does Lajos Egri argue that characterization and environment are foundational to character?
3.5.10. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]
- Mamet, David. On Directing Film. NY: Penguin, 1992. Pg. 13. ↩
- Margolin, Uri. “Character.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Edited by David Herman. NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 66. ↩
- Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pgs. 11-12. ↩
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