The Essence of Character

January 31st, 2005 · 7 Comments
by Booksquare

It is rare that we look to Roger Ebert for insight on character development, but perhaps that is just our shortsightedness at work. After all, he did write one of the husband’s favorite movies of all time. Characters (as we all know) march to their own little drummers. How often do we find something happening on the page that isn’t what we’d do in real life*?

It is this unexpected quality that makes characters fascinating. In fact, when a character’s actions challenges an author’s belief system, we think it adds unexpected depth to the story. Ebert looks further to point out that (apparently) flawed decisions by characters also serve to push readers/viewers to explore their own belief system:

Million Dollar Baby” raises fundamental moral issues. At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision. I do not agree with their decision. But here is the crucial point: I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film. It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them. That is one reason the film is so good: It follows the characters all the way to the limit, and plays true to them.

If we, as humans, made only good decisions, life would be dull. If characters made only good decisions, fiction would not exist.

* – Not that we’d know “real life” if it hit us over the head.

File Under: Tools and Craft

7 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Jan 31, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Dave, I don’t believe “honest character development” is the real issue here. Although I have not seen the movie, my impression is that what audiences are objecting to is spending time and money on “entertainment” that is in actuality just thinly-disuised political activism.

    Maybe someone who has actually seen this film will have a diferent take.

  • Brenda Coulter // Jan 31, 2005 at 10:31 am

    Hey, Booksquare, sory about calling you “Dave”. I had two blogs open at once….

  • Dark fantasy art dark gothic artist // Jan 31, 2005 at 10:09 pm


  • booksquare // Jan 31, 2005 at 11:14 pm

    Yeah, I was wondering who Dave was… (but, hey, I’ve missed hearing from you, so I’m willing to go by any name!).

    I guess the question is: is this activism or is this character development (Eastwood isn’t exactly known for his liberal views, so I think the question is fair)? Ebert’s position (and I so rarely agree with him, that I find typing this scary) is that the course of action made sense for the characters. I found it interesting that he was able to divorce his personal choices from those of the characters. I know I’ve struggled with this in my own writing. I may have to actually see a movie in the theater to discuss this further.

    I would like to hear from people who’ve seen the movie (please: Save The Husband!) about the issue of character choice. I’ve recently been confronted with more than one choice that challenges my personal belief system, and it’s an interesting feeling.

  • Brenda Coulter // Feb 1, 2005 at 11:54 am

    Thanks, Booksquare. I was half expecting that you’d give me the “Dave’s not here” routine. But you’re probably too young to remember Cheech and Chong.

    You could say that “the course of action made sense for the characters” about another controversial movie, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” When that came out, the discussion did not center on whether the characters’ actions were “true to character”, but on the movie’s transparent (“repent now”) agenda. Hey, I’m a Christian, but even I suspected that Mel’s treatment might have been a little heavy-handed. And yet the people who went to see that film knew exactly what they would be exposed to.

    In the case of “Million Dollar Baby”, they don’t. As they plunk down their ticket money they are completely unaware that they’re about to get hit in the face with a moral and political issue many people get very emotional about. So I think the critics were doing us all a favor with their “spoilers”.

  • booksquare // Feb 1, 2005 at 10:41 pm

    Actually, a lot of people confuse me with Dave. I like to think I’m better looking. But he’s better at Fantasy Baseball. We all have our strengths.

    I often joke that my husband and I can read the same newspaper and come away with entirely different experiences — this is why my reading on the Passion controversy was that it offered one viewpoint of the (historical) story, and this viewpoint conflicted with other viewpoints. This may sound flippant, but I often think of the Bible much like a traffic accident — each person who reads it comes away with a different take. Personally, I think the different perspectives open up the text…

    Which leads me to Million. If it were a book, would you want the final plot twist revealed? Isn’t the entire story building to a conclusion, and if you, the reader, know how it ends, doesn’t that color your experience throughout the process? Think about what we write — we make an implicit promise to our readers about the ending, and, in a way, that lessens the big suspense; one thing about genre fiction is that there are mores, and this gives readers a sense of comfort. I think this is good because story serves to reinforce our culture. If our promise is broken, we have to make sure it’s supported by our character development.

    I also think it’s easier to deal with major social issues on a fictional level (I was forced to contemplate this issue on a personal level recently — though, happily, things worked out — I had to reconcile in my mind what I believed, what the person involved believed, and what I wanted.). And I think serious debate is important…that being said, I still don’t believe critics should reveal the ending (let the movie percolate in the theaters a while, then discuss the cultural impact of the ending). I think back to the Crying Game — I knew the big surprise before it happened, and it changed the experience for me. Terms of Endearment, same way. When I read or see movies, or even listen to music, I want to be challenged. Heck, I like to be challenged. I was wrong once (g)…it could happen again!

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