As much as I like to judge the ultimate merits of a character by their relationships, we also learn a great deal about a character from the way they deal with, or ignore, their emotions. We may put up a brave front in the face of friends, competitors, or even close relatives and spouses, but in the end, we are who we are in the dark. Our characters are no different.
Conflict gives weight, drive, and meaning to any drama unfolding before us, and that conflict need not be with another character. An individual can be conflicted over their emotions, especially if they interfere with or threaten to override one’s duty. If you’ve ever seen the television show Chuck, you know what I’m talking about. The main character shows a great range of emotions, one of his handlers struggles to keep her feelings to herself, and the other handler seems all but emotionless outside of a general level of seething rage. It’s part of that show’s appeal.
Equilibrium isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it does touch on some very real aspects of the human condition and how we process, explore, and control our emotions. Like many fascist notions, the idea of suppressing or eliminating emotion has some merit, as it would definitely cut down on things like war, fanaticism, murder, and rape. However, doing so at the cost of artistic impulse, love, compassion, and camaraderie is too high. The human mind can look to defend itself, but the heart longs to feel, even if the brain tells it that being harmed is inevitable.
It can be difficult to relate to characters if they show no emotion. I think this is more a problem in video games than anywhere else. Previously, technology limited how much a character could emote, but modern techniques continue to bring us more life-like expressions, exchanges of dialog, and moments of introspection in the midst of all the action. Granted, this happens more in RPGs than it does in first-person shooters, but there’s no reason we can’t have our emotional cake and eat it, too. One of the big problems I had with later Halo games is that it was very hard for me to relate to Master Chief; the guy seems to run more on batteries than he does a human circulatory system. Heroes without emotions are just straight-up boring.
It’s entirely possible to go too far in the other direction, though. For years, Samus Aran showed little to no emotion in the Metroid games, and then Metroid Other M comes along to give Samus a voice and show us how it might feel to have an alien serial killer resembling a pterodactyl harass, assault, and victimize you at every turn. Reactions to this insight into her character were mixed, to say the least, and I can say very little about it as I have yet to play the game myself. But suffice it to say that, for many, it was simply too much.
What characters strike the right emotional balance for you? What’s a great example of showing an audience what and how characters feel?
To paraphrase Churchill, I tend to judge a character mostly by the quality of their relationships. The more complex the connection, the more driven the characters involved, the better the story becomes. I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, either. Each of us has a variety of connections to others, ranging from simple acquaintance to a deep and nuanced history, and our characters should be no different.
Many times, a story will tell us of a child’s relationship with their parents. Be they deeply involved or completely aloof, the parents have an influence over their child and define that relationship. Is the child dedicated to making their parents proud of them, or proving them wrong about something? It comes down to the nature of the relationship parents and child had while said child was growing up. Even years after the fact, the shadow of a mother or father can fall over their son or daughter in some way or another, and how the character reacts tells us so much about them. One of the best scenes in Iron Man 2 is Tony Stark looking at the vibranium atom. He was lead to his discovery by his father, and the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist quietly remarks “Dead almost twenty years… and still taking me to school.” His little smile speaks volumes of his complex relationship with his father.
An overlooked relationship can be between characters who are friends. A friend is not only someone with whom common interests are shared, but also a source of inspiration or a voice of reason. A best friend or sidekick can be played mostly for last or marginalized in several ways, but good ones persist even as a story grows in scope and scale. Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred and employee Lucius Fox are not always powerful influences on Batman, but in the animated series as well as Nolan’s films, they make their presence felt on more than one occasion, helping to keep the Dark Knight on the right path.
A lot of stories involve romance. It’s best when such things are not shoehorned into the story, but grow naturally from the relationships characters have to begin with. Most people do not go about their lives with randomness, but follow a progression from one decision to another; sometimes decisions carefully made, sometimes at the spur of the moment, and all with consequences that reach far beyond that decision point. In V for Vendetta, the title character makes the choice to rescue the young woman who helped him, even though it meant keeping her prisoner. What came after changed both of them, and did so in a way that makes sense.
Beyond family, friends, and lovers, characters have relationships with their enemies. The most common (and somewhat dull) setup is purely antagonistic on both sides. Sometimes, enemies respect one another. In rare cases, they began as friends, and maintain a heightened sense of awareness of each other every time they cross paths. Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty may not have known each other as children, but they do hold each other to an uncommon degree of admiration. In Akira, Kaneda and Tetsuo begin as close friends, but circumstances drive them apart. And as the image above indicates, Professor X and Magneto maintain a complex and deep relationship even after they become enemies.
What relationships stick with you? Which surprise you or make you think or feel? And how can these things be applied to your characters?
I find it amusing when people say they aren’t afraid of anything. I have to wonder if they’d maintain that notion if they were alone in a diving suit down in the Marianas Trench. Most people I know would be unnerved by the very notion of being entirely alone with nothing but angler fish for company in total darkness. The point is, I’m of the opinion that everybody is afraid of something.
Those fears could come from something outside of our experiences. One of the reasons science fiction is an effective setting for horror is that the depths of space can contain all sorts of nasty and overwhelming experiences for unwary travelers, and that’s before the twisted creativity of humanity gets involved. It’s the notion of being trapped in a floating metal box with something that wants you dead that drives many a ghost story in space.
But other fears exist that have nothing to do with carnivorous alien beings or horrorterrors from deep beneath the sea. Our own anxieties can do a number on our confidence, motivation and self-esteem. We can and often do fear failure or pain or death, be it ours or that of someone we love. The unknown is terrifying to us, and so it is with the characters we create.
Fear can cripple a character or drive them to extremes. An otherwise heroic or kind person, faced with something that terrifies them, may find themselves unable to act or behaving in uncharacteristic ways to deal with what’s in front of them. It’s for these reasons that invincible heroes can be boring. What’s there to be afraid of if nothing can really hurt you? The possibility of failure needs to be palpable, possible and immediate to be effective. To that end, you should know what your characters fear the most.
Take a moment to think of a favorite book or movie or video game. What do the characters fear? Heroes and villains alike have doubts and unacknowledged terrors, things they will do anything to avoid dealing with. And when unknown fears do arise, how do they handle it? Who remains calm, and who loses it? It bears thinking about, as seeing characters come face to face with their fears and struggling to overcome them is crucial in making your story a compelling and memorable one.
‘Crime drama’ is a pretty broad spectrum for stories. Some are from the perspective of those on the people’s side of the law, following detectives and prosecutors in their pursuit of justice. Others give us the point of view of the individual criminal, from the ones trying to rise above a life of crime to those wallowing in it. They range from gritty realism to stylized flights of fancy, but there’s something about Gangster No. 1 that refuses to be pinned down to any side of the story save that of our protagonist.
Said protagonist remains nameless throughout the story much like his cousin in Matthew Vaughn’s seminal and stylish Layer Cake, and is recruited back in 1968 by up-and-coming crime boss Freddie Mays. Our hero looks up to Freddie in a big way, but when it seems Freddie has more affection of a nightclub singer than his new right-hand man, jealousy rears its ugly head. Circumstances fall together for the young gangster to get Freddie out of his way and become the big dog in the London yards, and he rules over a mighty criminal empire until, over 30 years later, Freddie returns from his imprisonment. A reunion is clearly in order.
One of the best things Gangster No. 1 has going for it is the clear influence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. With Malcolm McDowell as the older iteration of the Gangster, and Paul Bettany excellently pulling off the glower from behind lowered eyebrows that Malcolm himself made famous, we’re reminded quite clearly of the film that gave us ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’. And this movie certainly doesn’t shrink from the heavy stuff. Indeed, one of the best sequences in it involves a particularly brutal and thorough murder from the perspective of the victim, which tells us much more about the Gangster than any words ever could.
“Totally cool with you dating that chick, bro.”
This is a man driven mad with desires. He came from nowhere and wanted everything he saw. He didn’t just look up to Freddie Mays, he wanted to be Freddie Mays. More than once, we get the impression that the Gangster is struggling with feelings of romantic love for Mays, while at the same time he longs to oust Mays and take his place. This is why he seems so tortured when he’s taking his time to kill the rival crime lord who set about assassinating Freddie: the rival cause Freddie pain, he beat the Gangster to the punch, and he doesn’t dress or live anywhere near as well. The Gangster is out to prove his worth, that he is better than any other lawbreaker running around London, and he’ll leave a trail of bloody, broken bodies to do it without a shred of guilt or even a moment’s second thought.
It must be said that without McDowell’s sour, profanity-laced narration and Bettany’s silent, edgy intensity, this character study would fall completely flat. But thanks to the efforts of these two actors the movie functions quite well for what it is. The best scene is probably between Bettany and Saffron Burrows, the girl who “stole” Freddie from the Gangster. When she crosses the line and spits in the face of this cold-blooded, half-mad killer, Bettany’s face gives us an unflinching look at the anger and insanity writhing around in this character. Yet, he composes himself, without breaking eye contact, manages to smile and conveys wishes that would seem genuine, apologetic and heartfelt if it weren’t for the icy rage we’d seen moments ago. It’s a fantastic bit of acting that stands out among the rest of the film’s scenes.
Why is Professor Lupin being such a complete jerk?
The problems with Gangster No. 1 come down to tone and pacing. It never seems to decide for certain if it wants to be a mix of character drama and comedy like a Guy Ritchie film or a pure hard-nosed crime tragedy like Scarface. Elements of both are clearly present along with the aforementioned Clockwork Orange but it feels a bit like director Paul McGuigan went to a buffet where all of these options were available and tried to cram his plate with as much as he could from each one. It never becomes an actual mess, but also never finds its own voice amongst these influences. It also seems to accelerate a bit too much in places, as if once past the major turning points in the Gangster’s formative years it just wants to get us to the end. As for the ending, I won’t give anything away, but part of me was slightly unsatisfied with its neatness. Call me crazy, but I was expecting things to be a bit messier.
The director’s later work, Lucky Number Slevin and Push, had a better time with tone and pace, but Gangster No. 1 still gives us clean shots of excellent actors working with good story elements. I do feel there are better movies I’ve mentioned that can satisfy a craving for gritty criminal comedy or unflinching views into the underworld, and our villain protagonist doesn’t quite have the necessary pathos for us to be completely won over by him. He comes close, especially when we see how much unresolved emotion there is inside of him for Freddie, but it feels like too little too late. A little more time, perhaps elements of holding onto that duality of admiration and jealous, would have fleshed it out more and maybe left the ending a bit more satisfying for me. It never quite rises to the point of being more than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are excellent enough for me to recommend Gangster No. 1 as an addition to any crime, noir or character-driven Netflix queue selection.
Especially if you’re a fan of British slang, or those mirror dresses club girls wore back in the 60s. Pretty groovy stuff.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
In the broadest possible terms, Jungian psychology divides the self into three parts, much like Freud does, but Jung’s divisions have less to do with urges than they do with perception. There is the self we are, the self we believe ourselves to be, and the self perceived by others. With sufficient observation and self-awareness, it’s possible to discern how others perceive us and even alter that perception. Naturally, it’s something we can apply to our characters as much as ourselves.
“William Wallace is seven feet tall!”
“Yes, I’ve heard! Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts o’ lightning from his arse!”
Heroes, protagonists and so-called ‘good guys’ rarely pay much attention to how they’re perceived. We accept and, on some level, expect a level of humility from most heroes that precludes them from worrying about what others think overmuch. Occasionally, you’ll have somebody like Tony Stark, who uses the media’s perception of his persona not only to call attention to the evils he fights against but also to obfuscate the true depth of his character.
For the most part, though, our heroes tend to be more like John McClain or Aragorn, avoiding undue attention as much as possible so they can focus on the task at hand. The perceptions others have of them grow of their own accord, and things that they do in the pursuit of their goal become legendary tales to those who hear of their feats. It’s how the humble policeman and the reluctant ranger become heroes and kings.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Villains, on the other hand, make use of their perceptions often. Most of the time, it’s in the course of playing up their menace. The more scared you are of someone, the less likely you are to stand up to them. Some of them go beyond mere intimdation to craft a perception of themselves in the minds of others so powerful that they don’t need to look, say or do anything out of the ordinary.
Sure, messing with Megatron or Skeletor is a bad idea. You don’t assume, however, that picking on the little guy in the running crew could land you in big trouble. Many true villains cultivate perceptions of quiet, introverted advisors even as they steer the course of the world around them through quiet manipulation.
“So… I’m chasing this guy. Wait… wait, no, he’s chasing me.”
Finally there are those with conditions that might color the perception of others regardless of any moral stance they have. When they become aware of these perceptions, and the expectations that can come along with them, they can be just as manipulative of those perceptions as the canniest, most insidious villain. It causes other characters to question what they know and how they’ve come to know it.
“The dwarf’s a major threat? The psychopathic murder’s polite and cultured? The apologetic man with the short-term memory loss has ice water for blood?”
And let us not forget the perceptions of the audience. A character might seem to be utterly irredeemable in their eyes, until you allow them into that character’s point of view or expand upon their background. Let the audience spend time with them, fill in some of the blanks they might have populated with their preconceptions, and watch their perceptions change. When it happens, the audience will often take a moment to realize and appreciate the shift, then proceed to seek more story. And we, as storytellers, should not hesitate to oblige.