Cardboard characters are a screenwriter’s worst nightmare. Flat, uninteresting characters make films boring. So how can writers give depth to the characters they create? This article addresses that question. Here are three ways to make characters in a screenplay more dynamic.
1. Give your character a secret power or skill.
In The Karate Kid (1984), Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) is a handyman who lives in the same apartment complex as Daniel LaRusso. Miyagi uses his repair skills to fix Daniel’s bicycle after a frustrated Daniel throws it in a garbage bin. He and Daniel begin an unusual friendship and bond over bonsai trees. But Miyagi knows karate, something he keeps secret and only reveals only when Daniel, his future protege, is in trouble with a group of high school bullies.
Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplay for The Karate Kid, could have stopped there. But he didn’t. He gave Miyagi another secret power, one that seems to defy logic and lift the material to another level. After Miyagi makes Daniel shine his deck floors (which is his way of teaching Daniel essential karate moves), he asks him to show him the moves Daniel has been unknowingly learning by performing chores for Miyagi every day for a week. Daniel complains that his shoulder hurts. So Miyagi puts his hands on Daniel’s shoulder and massages them. Daniel’s pain magically goes away. Flabbergasted, Daniel asks, “how did you do that?”.
This secret power pays off in the film’s climax. When Daniel has been injured, it appears that the All-Valley Karate Tournament is over. Daniel asks Miyagi to help heal his leg but Miyagi implores Daniel to accept defeat. When Daniel insists on fighting in the tournament, Miyagi reluctantly agrees. He slaps his hands together and rubs them feverishly. The next scene shows Daniel limping out to the mat to finish the tournament. Miyagi’s magical ability to heal injuries goes unexplained and this is what makes his character so interesting and dynamic.
In Rain Main (1988), Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hofman) is an autistic savant and the brother Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) never knew. When their father dies, Charlie learns that Raymond has inherited three million dollars and Charlie has been left with prized rose bushes and an old Buick. Frustrated, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the institution where he has lived since he was an infant.
Charlie becomes increasingly agitated when Raymond becomes obsessive-compulsive about his routine. Raymond demonstrates that he is unable to function in the world, until he reveals his secret power. He has a photographic memory. Charlie realizes he can use Raymond as his partner in blackjack. Since Raymond can count into the deck and remember all the cards that have been played, he is able to advise Charlie how to bet to beat the dealer. Charlie does and collects enough money to pay of his debts.
2. Give your character an unlikely ally.
The secret to making this work is to deepen the contrast between the character you’re developing and the ally you give him. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana (Harrison Ford) has a sidekick named Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) who follows him on his adventure to India. Indy, Short Round, and a nightclub singer named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) find an underground temple while staying at Pankot Palace. Soon, Indy becomes entangled with thugs from an ancient cult. When Indy is just about to be killed by a rock crushing machine, Short Round saves him. An American archaeologist and a young Chinese boy in the 1930s. You can’t get any more different than that. And that’s why it works so beautifully.
Another example can be found in the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) written by James Cameron and William Wisher. In a masterstroke of cinematic irony, Cameron and Wisher make the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who was the villain of the original Terminator (1984), an ally of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). When the Terminator and John Connor (Edward Furlong) go to an institution to break Sarah out, Sarah’s shock that the Terminator is there to help her, not kill her, soon turns to relief. But she grapples with her unlikely alliance with the Terminator as she joins forces with him to carry out a larger objective; to prevent the future nuclear war, which will claim three billion human lives, from occurring.
Her cynicism turns to paranoia and finally to a quiet respect as she and the Terminator achieve their objective by killing the T-1000 and destroying all evidence of the future. Her unsteady partnership with the machine that nearly killed her in the first film adds a richly textured layer to the sequel and that is what makes her character so dynamic.
Rocky III (1982) gives us another example when Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is defeated by Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Dejected, he retires. His world unravels when he learns that his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) arranged easy fights to prolong Balboa’s career. Then, an unlikely foe enters the picture and proposes a partnership. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky’s nemesis in the first two Rocky films, suggests the two men join forces to help Balboa reclaim the title. This enemy turned friend borrows from The Threshold Guardian archetype and that is what makes it so compelling.
3. Take your character out of their comfort zone.
Drama only works when people are under pressure. Taking your character and throwing him to the proverbial wolves is an excellent way to create dramatic situations that can give your characters dynamic qualities as we watch the character fend for themselves. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), the main character is a young, wisecracking U.S. Marine named Private Joker (Matthew Modine). Joker feels at ease during boot camp as we watch him survive the rigors of intense military training.
The film is divided into two Acts. The First Act shows Joker and his fellow Marines in boot camp. The Second Act shows Joker in Vietnam, fighting to survive. The arc of Joker’s character takes him from his comfort zone, Parris Island boot camp, where he is protected by grizzled Drill Instructors eager to turn him into a killing machine, to an empty, bombed-out building where an invisible sniper has been killing Joker’s men. The film concludes with Joker becoming the figurative embodiment of the film’s title and killing the sniper point-blank. The film’s writing credits go to three men, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford. Let’s examine how they dramatize Joker’s arc.
In the early scenes of the film, Joker acts tough. The Drill Instructors provide a layer of impenetrable authority around Joker’s naivete. Joker talks tough, but the truth is he has never seen a shot fired in anger. He is a virgin in combat. At the end of the First Act, however, Joker will witness the shocking murder of his own Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) by a disillusioned Marine named Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). This is the first stripping away of authority that Joker will experience as he inches closer to being put to the test at the Battle of Hue.
In Vietnam, Joker assumes a combat correspondent role. He begins his tour carrying a camera, instead of a weapon, but he soon gets his first taste of battle when his unit is ambushed during the Tet Offensive. The scenes depicting this battle show the enemy only at a distance. A personal connection to his enemy is denied to Joker because he is surrounded by combat veterans with more grit and experience.
In the film’s climax, we see Joker with a squad of Marines as they march into the city of Hue. A platoon commander is killed in action. Then, a squad leader is killed by a booby trap. Joker’s friend from boot camp Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard) becomes the leader. Soon, he loses control of his squad as two of his men run into a trap and are killed in gruesome fashion by an unseen Viet Cong sniper. After Cowboy himself is hit with a single shot through the chest, Joker finds himself alone with the sniper as his squad doggedly pursues the enemy.
The tense sequence at Hue is signifcant because it shows the layers of authority, which Joker has cloaked his bravado behind, disintegrate. In an early scene, Joker brags that he wanted to be the first kid on his block to get a confirmed kill. His wish is granted in the climactic shot as he shoots the Viet Cong sniper off-screen. In the end, the veneer of Joker’s innocence peels off to reveal a robust, dynamic character who has seen the face of war and lived to tell about it.
Photo Credit: The Karate Kid