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By Patrick Kirkland · July 13, 2011
Ever hear the thing about icebergs?
WILL: Do you know much about icebergs, Dad?
EDWARD: Do I? I saw an iceberg once. They were hauling it down to Texas for drinking water, only they didn’t count on an elephant being frozen inside. The woolly kind. A mammoth.
WILL: (interrupting) Dad!
WILL: I’m trying to make a metaphor here.
-Big Fish (2003)
Great characters come onto the screen, say their lines, make their moves, and then exit. What the audience will remember is their fantastic dialogue, or a couple of wonderful moments- say Ed Bloom's revelation that he's "drying out", or Anton Chigurh's coin flipping for a man's life. Or maybe the audience will fall in love with just the climax of the character, such as when an entire theater weeps for Jerry Maguire when he says three words: "You…complete…me." As the audience, the iceberg analogy is true – you'll only see about ten percent. But as the writer, you must know everything, and 10 percent on screen leaves a lot left to know.
Let's say your story starts with a girl running late to her first class in Judaism. What do we know? We know she's late. We know she's transitioning to become Jewish. We know that her fiance is Hasidic.
What don't we know – or, more specifically, what doesn't the audience know, that the writer does?
To start off, maybe this girl grew up Mormon fundamentalist. What was it like for a girl to grow up the seventh child in a polygamous family of 21 children with her father and his four wives? And when her mother abruptly left one day, how did she take the abandonment? Was she accepted by the other mothers? Or tossed aside like a scrap of meat for a junk-yard dog? And what about dad? Loving? Understanding? Or sexually abusive? At thirteen, was she already betrothed to a man three times her age? And what about the community? School? Friends? Her understanding of the outside world? And when she finally escaped the family compound herself, and hitchhiked across America on a quest to find her birth mother, did she end up in a biker bar in the middle of nowhere, and is that how she got the scar on her face?
It’s in the asking of questions that is key, because when you fully understand your character’s history, their mentality, you can start page one with a believable character. Because as much as we love watching the hero struggle to achieve her objective, it's not enough. We have to love the character. Root for her. Pray for her. Empathize. And we will believe in our protagonists if they are fully formed, four-dimensional characters. If, however, you just have a vague idea of who she is – only the superficial tip of the iceberg – your character most likely will fail on the page. So go further. Dig deeper. Really dive beneath the surface to uncover the entire iceberg.
The truth is that great, fully-formed characters can hold a film for hours, with or without caring so much about their specific objectives. Don't believe me? Look no further than the infamous trio of The Big Lebowski.
"Uh-huh. Well, I still jerk off manually…"
His name is Jeff Lebowski. He's the Dude. And before he ever wants his rug back, he hates the Eagles, drinks White Russians, and doesn't pay rent on time. These are all things that have been decided way before he's accosted in his living room. This character is a guy that doesn't play by the rules. Why? Because he's not even really aware there are rules.
INT. RALPH’S (pg. 2)
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
He is feeling quarts of milk for coldness and examining their expiration dates.
Not only does he check the milk, but he opens it up, takes a sniff, and then pays for it, by writing a check for 69 cents. And, from the cashier's reaction, this is not the first time that he's done this.
After a five minute VO telling us the "Dude may be the man for his place and time," this may just be the most anticlimactic character introduction in the history of cinema, but it also tells us this guy's entire adult life, without telling us anything. This is what introductions should be like, and they get that way BECAUSE of the work the writers have done on the 90%. As little as we know about the Dude, we automatically KNOW the Dude. He doesn't care about his looks. He's particular – he doesn't want bad milk to ruin his White Russians – but only to a point – the cartons are all expired. He's wearing sunglasses inside the grocery store, so we can assume he's stoned.
We learn a little bit of backstory about the Dude – a part of the Seattle Seven – along with six other guys – and a roadie for Metallica. We learn that he was part of the Port Huron statement – but he's clear to state that he didn't have anything to do with the Second Draft – the one that went public. These little bits of info help us lock down the character, but they're just little bits. And by the time we've learned them, we already know who this guy is. He's a man with a past, and probably not much of a future.
THEODORE DONALD “DONNY” KERABATSOS
“I am the Walrus?”
Is there any character in any film that's more pitiful? Donny is the guy that has nothing going for him, and we have no idea how long it's been like that. He's both disrespected as a friend, and embraced as an idiot, even though he's probably a smart guy if actually given the chance.
If Donny's iceberg, we're probably only seeing about 5 percent of him in the film, but that doesn't mean he's not a fully formed character.
Donny is the third wheel. And not just the third wheel between Dude and Walter, or the third wheel in the bowling alley, but the third wheel in life. We learn that he's a surfer after he dies, but we never see him surf. He's not only told he's out of his element, but he really is out of his element, which is what makes him so interesting. But he's also King of the one-liners: "Your phone's ringing, Dude." "I am the Walrus?" "Why do you need that, Dude?" (in response to the Dude wanting to keep his johnson).
Even Donny's death is out of his element. He dies of a heart attack, in the middle of a parking lot fight with Nihilists. And how is he remembered? "Donny was a good bowler." What we know about Donny is that he gets absolutely no respect and that he never has. The 95% of what we don't see is what makes him absolutely okay with this.
Donny never complains. He never acts like it bothers him; in fact, he never even mentions it. He just lives it. What happened in his past that makes him okay with being the third wheel? We don't know. But we know he's okay with getting the short stick. So when his ashes are poured out of a Folgers coffee can, we may feel sorry for the guy, but we laugh because it's a death that fits the character all too well.
"Look, Larry, have you ever heard of Vietnam?"
Is there any better character than Walter Sobchak? A Vietnam vet, Walter is the guy who loved killing Vietnamese, just because he could. He is, in every sense, what we imagine Robert Duvall's Lt. Kilgore would be, if, that is, Kilgore were around in the 90s and he loved to bowl.
Walter is most certainly an iceberg. But whereas the Dude's character probably has about 70 percent under water, and Donny's character has about 95 percent beneath, Walter's character has about 99 percent in the deep blue sea. As viewers, we love Walter. We love his Old Testament worshipping ("I DON'T FUCKING ROLL ON THE SABBATH"), his Lenin philisophicalizing ("Shut the fuck up, Donny! V.I. Lenin! Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!"), and his political correctness ("Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, uh. . . Asian- American. Please.") The same guy who takes care of his ex-wife's Pomeranian and screams the rules of the Old Testament, is the same guy who can take a bat to a stranger's Corvette.
But that's what makes him such a great character. Where one moment he's screaming at Donny to “shut the fuck up”, in another, he's giving a heartfelt eulogy, holding a dead guy inside a coffee can. Walter's aggression makes him mess up every situation he's part of. His desire to help the Dude on a money handover pushes the Dude further and further away from his goal. Donny's eulogy ends up with a lost soldier reference and Donny's remains blown into the Dude's beard. And Walter's response? "Let's go bowling."
Walter steals every scene is he in, not just because of Goodman's fantastic performance, but because he is easily one of the best characters ever written. The 1% that shows up on screen is a magnificent, dynamic character, but all because of the 99% before the film that is such a weird, crazy, awesome mess. And is he believable? Absolutely.
Knowing your characters is just that. Knowing them, fully. That at the end of the day, you could answer every question about them, or at least take an educated guess. It's in the knowing their childhood, their parents, their grandparents, their everything that makes the difference from creating a forgettable flat caricature to a complex, multi-layered, truly memorable person. Do we know what Walter's life was like before 'Nam? No, but we see that there's a business side, that there's a loving side, that there's a good friend and a caring guy inside that serious anger issue. Do we know how he'll react at every instance? No, but we can take a guess. And we know that there's a big chance that he'll screw it up. But because we empathize, because we care, we hope and fear for him just the same.
Knowing is making sure that you write honest, believable, 4D characters. It's writing the truth. It makes the difference between a good screenplay, and one that strikes a hole in the ground, for your readers, your actors, and your viewers. We're not quite sure of the Hero's objective in The Big Lebowski, although we think it's about the Dude getting his rug back. But we love the film, and why? Because we know and love these characters, inside and out.