A Discussion about Movie Characters

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Dome Vongvises, Sep 3, 2001.

  1. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    It has been an experience of mine here at the HTF and other film reviewers, professinal or amateur, that some of the more "popcorn" fare of recent late have often been accused of having "paper-thin" characters. It got my mind to thinking, "what technically constitues then, a complex character?". I've run over my mind several movie characters I've ever seen and had them disectted to "paper-thin" as well. I'd like to see a discussion about complex movie characters (eg. who they are, what makes them complicated/complex, etc. etc.).
    P.S. I'll bet five bucks somebody here is going to eventually name a movie I've never heard of (more than likely, a foreign film).
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  2. Todd Terwilliger

    Todd Terwilliger Screenwriter

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    Difficlut. I think it's much easier to find "thin" characters than find complex ones. I'm not sure wether you're looking at "thin" motivations or "thin" actions. For example, the main character in Memento(forgot his name). His motives are simple enough but his methods and processes are complex.
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  3. Walter Kittel

    Walter Kittel Producer

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    What makes a complex character? I would say there are a number of factors that can combine to create such a persona in a film. Off the top of my head...
    The actor has to 'sell' the role and make you believe in the performance. There has to be a sense of comittment from the actor. Staying in character is always a good thing. [​IMG]
    The script has to create a scenario where the actions of the character are properly motivated. If the actions of the character are telegraphed, or seem contrived this can undermine a good performance. I believe most 'paper thin' characters are a result of poor writing, or possibly editing. Character actions driven by the plot vs. arising out of the necessity of the circumstances is probably the surest way to break the illusion of film, for me anyway.
    Characters who have a sense of history can be seen as complex. This can manifest itself in terms of psychological tension, or conflict with others due to unresolved issues.
    Personality quirks can be employed to flesh out a character and make them seem more real. Certain habits, ways of speaking, idiosyncracies, etc. can all be used. John Turturro comes to mind as a practitioner of these techniques.
    Unpredictability ( see my above comment regarding telegraphed actions ) can make a character seem more believable.
    I don't want to turn this into a poll of complex characters [​IMG] but here are a few roles that I would consider complex ( and extremely well performed ) ...
    - Ian McKellan as James Whale in Gods and Monsters
    - Ian Holm as Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter
    - Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull
    - Walter.
     
  4. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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    Walter, excellent post and good examples (though I haven't seen the second movie you mentioned).
    The way I see it, a character isn't "thin" when you can imagine this person existing in real life. The "hero" characters are bull because people don't run around saving the world and being perfect. Supervillains are also ridiculous for the same reason, just opposite motivations.
    The actor does have something to do with it (Van Damme could never be a believable character) but it's mostly the writing. Most movies made recently do not even allow for the potential of good characters. If a plot is "Good guy's wife dies. He invades bad guy's secret fortress to take revenge and save the world" then there is nothing you can do to save the character. I don't care who's directing or acting, you're going to end up with some dude shooting down a bunch of baddies and yelling. It will suck.
    Here are some more believable characters:
    Scarlet O'Hara, Gone With the Wind
    Barry Lyndon, Barry Lyndon
    The main character from A Clockwork Orange
    Everyone in Full Metal Jacket
    (can ya tell I like Kubrick?)
    Pretty much all of the characters in Scorsese's movies, including Jesus Christ.
     
  5. Morgan Jolley

    Morgan Jolley Lead Actor

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    The guy in Memento was Leonard. And he was complex.
    Its mainly the performance that makes the character. The script can tell what the character should be like, but the performance actually pulls it off. Adding depth to a character pretty much involves emotions and a realistic portrayal of a person. Making someone complex involves giving that character some sort of ability or trait that is different from normal people that really stands out (in Memento, the main character, Lenny, has no short term memory).
    Another thing about Memento, the character had a lot of depth and complexity to him because of the events that led up to what he does now affected him a lot. For example:
    Spoiler:He is relentlessly searching for his wife's killer because of what happened to her. Also, the stories he tells about Sammy Jenkis are actually what Lenny did. This means that the character has a big history that effects everything he does, which adds depth and complexity to his character.
     
  6. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    Thanx for the info and discussion folks. But another point has come up which kind of relates to this topic. When a character is terrible, how can you usually determine whether not it is the fault of the actor (not trying hard enough, didn't research the role, not acting period, etc.) or the fault of the writer (not enough written about the character, character given stupid lines, not enough range is given to the actor, etc.)?
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  7. Eric Bass

    Eric Bass Second Unit

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    I definately agree with the above. Although a good actor can defiantely add a great deal to a weak movie, there is only so much that can be done with bad lines and bad directing.
    Personally my belief on character depth is that the character needs to convince the audience that he/she is a real person with many complexities and whom we don't entirely understand after knowing for 5 minutes. Paper thin characters are the ones who after you watch the first few scenes in the movie, you already know exactly how the will react to any situation. I don't feel that a character needs to play up a huge dramatic past or anything along those lines to be deep, he/she just needs to convince me that there's a lot going on up in their heads and as the audience we are only seeing what shows on the surface. My only requirement for a good character is that when a plot twist hits, I'm not entirely sure what he or she is gonna do about it.
     
  8. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    I'd like to throw in Andy Dufrane from The Shawshank Redemption. I was just thinking about great characters, and he just came up. I can't imagine anybody else beside Tim Robbins playing the role. He perfectly played an innocent man who was lulled into living a life of a prison inmate until he finds that one chance to break free. When it gets away from his grasp, he becomes a determined man bent on escaping prison. I can't think of anybody else who went through such a great change as a character and still maintained his core.
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  9. Dwayne

    Dwayne Supporting Actor

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    Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.
    I usually associate complex roles with characters that require the actor/actress to go through some sort of transformation. Al Pacino in The Godfather is another example of this. But there are alot of performances that don't require the said transformation. Their characters are complex to begin with.
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    "And vidi films I would."
     
  10. TimW

    TimW Agent

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    I would say that pretty much anything Morgan Freeman has done (with the exception of The Electric Company) just blows me away!
    Always thinking, wise but fallible (sp?) I love the fact that he has such a talent for conveying vulnerability and compassion.
    I think that for me to really get wrapped up in a character, I have to be able to recognize some sense of imperfection (which I'm usually able to relate too. [​IMG])
    Tim
     
  11. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    Let's see, without looking at previous comments yet...
    John Wayne in The Searchers (this is a popularly noted complex character and a famous twist on the previously thin Western heroes)
    Bogart in Casablanca (there's a reason we are a bit surprised by that ending, and it has a lot to do with his character)
    Eli Wallach in Good, Bad, Ugly (straight up villian, hardly)
    Olivier in Wuthering Heights (he could easily "win", he could have it all, but the truth of his character's desperate obsession drives him first to success and then right on past it. There is no putting on instant brakes when you spend years developing a deep obsession/hatred like that.)
    A film drenched in complex characters, especially Gene Hackman's role...The Unforgiven. (is Bill the good guy or the bad guy. After all, he does run a fair town, his goal in not to grab power, he is not corrupt in the sense of bribary or taking actions to seek power and wealth at the expense of others. He does stand up against a dangerous hired killer, who has illegally murdered a man. Yet, he seems more the villian than any other character in the film. We can believe all of his actions, but before we see any of them we could barely have predicted them.)
    I have intentionally gone after westerns or guy flicks because they are often more associated with paper thin characters, yet we see that it does not need to be so.
    Another good example from an area often loaded with 2-D characters...Stewart in Wonderful Life. Capra had a talent for walking through the mindfield of sugarary sappiness yet avoiding all the trappings of those themes. Stewart's character does things for real, human reasons. Things are not clear cut, melodramatic, etc. for him. He is Mr. Niceguy and yet he is rather mean to his future wife, and sometimes kinda rude and gruff with many people.
    Something else to keep in mind is that there is a difference between paper thin or 2 dimensional characters, and characters who have a distinct, focused personality.
    Paper thin characters are ones that simply don't exhibit the sort of behavior a thinking person would. Not smart mind you, simply an actual living person, no matter what their tastes, ideals, etc. When you see their actions they exhibit a thought pattern put into them, rather than some pre-arranged course of action. Their efforts clearly try to achieve goals consistent with what has been established.
    They don't ignore factors that would be obviously important to them or that have already been established as important to them, simply to follow the set pattern of their stereotype. When they do surprise us, it's due to some other factor that we hadn't fully considered, but that has often already been revealed to us. In that way, the actions make sense despite being a "surprise". And often they aren't a surprise within the story, but don't really play along some pre-defined character structure that could be cut and pasted into a myriad of films.
    Paper thin characters usually fall back heavily on cliched concepts to capitalize on an already established image in the audiance's head. That saves the director/writer from having to do any work to establish the character themselves.
    Thus, paper thin characters come across like this...within a few minutes of seeing the character you say "Oh, type A character" and you can easily predict the upcoming usage of the character in the story, or note references to previous films in which an identical, equally thin character was used.
    Trusty sidekick, ruthless villian, etc.
    And paper thin characters have their uses in quality storytelling too. Bad films are just ones that use paper thin characters when a good story would call for a deeper character to be used in that/those particular role(s). But many great character actors have carved out great film moments with paper thin characters.
    Hey, good topic. I love when we talk about stuff like this, whether we agree or not. It's the discussion that allows us to all learn off of each other and push us to greater understanding of film.
     
  12. Dwayne

    Dwayne Supporting Actor

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    I would like to add Peter 'OToole in Lawrence of Arabia . An extremely muli-faceted performance.
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    -Dwayne
    "And vidi films I would."
     
  13. Holadem

    Holadem Lead Actor

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    I agree with Dwayne, LOA is the most complex character I have ever watched, though the movie belongs nowhere near my top anything.
    --
    Holadem
     
  14. Bruce Hedtke

    Bruce Hedtke Cinematographer

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    I've always associated complex characters with those who are either deceptive or distressed. But, that is a broad guideline and really doesn't apply in films, mainly because those are two terms you cannot learn. They must be part of your personality. So, when watching a film, I can gauge how complex a character is when the thought comes roaring through my mind "Why! Why! Why! did you just do that?". The character just doesn't "conform" to rational thinking. Some recent examples of that are:
    Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry-maybe I'm mixing confusion with complexity, but every time I watch this, I just cannot get a handle on what would drive a person to act in the ways Teena Brandon did.
    Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count On Me-one of the most disrupting and affecting performances of the past decade. Always living beyond the controls of society, Terry portrays the fearless wanderer who wants normalcy but cannot handle its rigid guidelines.
    Bruce
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  15. Chad R

    Chad R Cinematographer

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    Real Name:
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    In my writing classes I was taught (and I'm boiling it down to the basics here) that a simple character makes the right decisions from a moral standpoint. Brendan Fraser stops the Mummy because saving the world is the right thing to do. A more complex character makes decisions that are right for them. These decisions are based on their prior established history.
    That's a very basic way of looking at it. And there are of course varying levels of complexity.
    A good movie example is Michael Corleone: Who's journey is just wonderful. He starts off and very blatantly says that he will have nothing to do with his Father's business, and then gets sucked into it anyway. But the complexity is that it's not against his will. He makes choices that are against his stated wish of not joining the business, but reacts much like his history of being raised around that business would justify. (I'm trying to be spoiler free here) So although he's told us that he'll have nothing to do with it, he does anyway by his own choice (surprising us). The movies also deal a lot in fate and destiny but that's another discussion.
     
  16. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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    Chad R, wow! What a great way of phrasing it.
    Honestly, I'm so glad I read your post. It's putting into words something I know I've always thought but couldn't explain.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
     
  17. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    Micheal Corleone, Al's best role, is a clear cut example of what I would like to say is a complex character. He's somewhat tragic, doomed forever to be part of the Mafia world. He's one of the few characters in which you have to watch the entire story arch (yes III as well) in order to understand him. Part II best showcases Micheal Corleone, not only it its portrayal of him, but in its contrast with the other great character of the series, Vito (not as complex, but charming and likeable as well).
    Lawrence of Arabia
    - I agree that the portrayal of Lawrence is great, but I can't help but think that he somehow comes off cliched a la the reluctant hero
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