Thinking about the theme of a story, there are many ways to go about finding and choosing the characters that will traverse the plot in order to shape our premise through their respective arcs. So, what better than to review the 4 most important characters you’ll ever use in storytelling to wrap up this whole character/theme chapter.
Let’s do it!
But, who are these important characters we’re talking about?
The love interest
Now, let’s quickly review them one by one, first we’ll go about those who we’ve extendedly discussed in previous entries, so we’ll just briefly discuss them.
THE PROTAGONIST: represents the main thematic principle, meaning that their emotional journey, which is also the main engine of the story, culminates in the realization of the thematic truth.
THE ANTAGONIST: Represents the flipside of the protagonist’s thematic principle.
Okay, so we already knew a lot about those two, but what about the others?
3. THE SIDEKICK: Proves the value of the protagonist’s thematic principle, mostly through reflection, which is important because of its differences from the protagonist and makes a strong argument as to why the protagonist has to fight and win.
4. THE LOVE INTEREST: Functions as an impact character, someone who guides the protagonist. They do this by symbolically rewarding (drawing nearer to) or punishing (drawing away from) the protagonist, depending on how aligned the protagonist is with the story’s truth.
And just to give a proper ending to this topic, let’s remember that characters often work not towards a real solution but to a perceived solution. Also, characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.
There’s something to say about supporting characters, think about it as conversations. Yeah, conversations, you know? Like when you’re having problems and you go and ask someone else. They will reflect upon your problem, find their own take on it and offer it back for you to understand a different approach to it.
At their core, supporting characters do exactly this, they support your truth, they expand upon it, offer nuance and possibilities.
They’re the greatest opportunity a writer has to deepen the complexity, maturity and subliminal power of your story’s thematic premise. Just remember, the biggest the character’s role in the story, the more explicit its relationship with the theme should be.
Yet, any character you introduce is an opportunity to reflect upon the theme.
Let’s take for example the following theme.
“Being brave no matter what is the key to conquer fear”
We have our protagonist, they’re coward, right? That wound would place them as far from the thematic truth as possible (the farther the deeper the conflict).
So, which type of supporting characters could we use to expand upon the theme?
A character who doesn’t experience fear for example, are they brave?
A character who lost the battle against fear, what can they tell about the theme?
A character who battles blindly because of fear, this one can also guide us to be precise in what we choose to battle.
As you can see, allowing each character to approach the subject from different angles gives you a plethora of material to play with in exploring every aspect of your theme.
Just keep your thematic question in mind before deciding upon them. In our case would be something like…
“Is bravery enough to conquer fear?”
Now, are all of your supporting characters answering this question in some way or another? Usually, some of them should argue for it, others should argue against it.
Simplifying the theme into a question gives you the possibility of using the supporting characters to reflect upon it, offering various answers.
One key aspect of supporting characters and their relation with the protagonist, stands from the inherent idea of the protagonist’s arc being the living proof of the thematic premise. Because of this, every other iteration of the truth, meaning all other reflections supporting characters offer, is considered to be a deviation in the protagonist’s path to the truth.
Now, about characterization, you really need to make sure your character’s personal mindsets are demonstrated in scene level, their actions influencing the plot. Pay attention to their scene motivation, their reason to be there (as characters), which stands from their desires.
You should at least give them desire and a plan of action for how they’re going to obtain their goals. And also keep in mind that, most of the time, their goals become serious resistance to the protagonist’s own goals.
Before you get all stressed about it (why should you, aren’t you a writer?) take into consideration that for the vast majority of supporting characters, you can get away with hitting just two major beats:
The setup; introduction of their lie/flaw/want (goal).
The payoff; a hint at their moment of truth.
In conclusion; at the deepest of story levels, the minor characters are there to provide thematic representation of your protagonist’s various fates.
I’m gonna be honest here, I don’t care for GI Joe, I don’t know anyone who cares for GI Joe. To me this is a dead franchise (if it ever was alive). I’m gonna go even further, I remember watching those Gi Joe cartoons as a child, they sucked. No really, I mean these “soldiers” were competing for my attention with some crazy transforming robots, with two different dudes holding a sword, and a bit later with all kinds of Japanese craziness. So, let’s be clear, I don’t like Gi Joe cartoons and stuff, even the toys sucked in comparison with all the others. But… all that said, Snake eyes is a good movie, especially when has nothing to do with Gi Joe, truth is Gi Joe ruins the movie, tones it down, makes it dumber than it has to be and, in the process, kills the creative drive of the production team (this is so palpable through the third act of the movie). And the film has so many good things going on! It’s almost unconceivable that they butchered this action-packed film by adding stupid stuff like giant snakes???? It almost t feels like two different stories nearing the midpoint, where the cobra logo is revealed (a logo that no terrorist organization with any self-proud would use).
Anyway, let’s start from the top, shall we? So, what’s the movie about? Okay, it’s about this dude, Snake eyes, I mean the protagonist. He, as a child, gets to see his father being assassinated and makes a run for it in the middle of the forest at night (more on this a bit later) in the most awful first sequence I can remember in any film. Expository dialogue of the worst kind and cliché stuff all over the place. But I understand it’s workings, because at minute 10 you already know what’s all about (or you think you do). So, in ten minutes the movie sets a revenge path for Snake Eyes, the dude, and then moves some many years into the future without even explaining how the hell a little kid even makes it out alive in the middle of a forest, or how does he manage to stay alive with literally no more family and allies (cause the movie also tells us that the father erases the kid from records to protect him from ugh, Cobra). And I know I’m being a dick about it, I actually remember an interview of Tarantino when he talks about “There will be blood” by Paul Thomas Anderson, he says that he likes the first part of the movie, yet he doesn’t understand how the protagonist survives alone in the desert after breaking his leg falling into a pit, kinda the same thing here. But anyway, the kid grows and now has become a regular cast from Mortal Kombat. He enjoys/works beating people to a pulp, which earns him the opportunity of being scouted by the bad guys. Yet being with the bad guys, Snake Eyes fails to kill a dude which becomes his ally and then a number of plot twists start happening (I’m not gonna talk about it because this is the best part of the movie by far).
So, the story literally dies by the mid-point, the part (as I already said) where the Gi Joe stuff gets forcibly thrown into the plot and instantly destroys everything. And it’s so awful because we just come from an amazing action sequence between the three mayor characters of the movie and the villain’s army, the villain himself even makes an appearance here. I have to talk about the amazing camera work in this part, the action is top notch. And not only on this particular sequence, but since the beginning (and ending where we discussed) all fights are raw and violent, almost too violent for a ugg… Gi Joe movie. There’s Thai action vibe going on all over the place, some Tony Jaa mixed with John Woo style of direction, just really engaging and entertaining stuff. Which later on gets lost into the stablishing the franchise bullshit that ruins everything. I mean, the second half of the movie is so bad that it even adds a jewel that turns people to ashes instantly and the before mentioned giant fake snakes. Some betrayals here and there, more action sequences of the boring and no stakes kind and we get to the ending where the two main guys change roles, because everyone knows that Snake Eyes is the good one and Storm Shadow is the bad one, right? (actually who cares!)
There’s only one thing I want to add before ending this review/rant, I heard somewhere that in the really great movies the plot points are hidden and are difficult to find or to spot when they’re happening. In this case they’re so obvious that a snob writer would say “this movie sucks” without hesitating. Yet for me this is not the case, I mean everyone knows the hero’s journey, it works, okay? It’s kinda childish? Yes, but it hits the right emotional spots every time and Snake Eyes does this really good, until some stupid logo gets thrown into the mix and it becomes Hiroshima all over again. So, should you watch this movie? Yes, but beware of the dumb stuff.
I swear that while I was watching A Few Good Men it occurred to me that I was watching the same plot as in Full Metal Jacket, the premises are quite similar, but with a positive twist of growth for the character and without the social criticism or experimentation in the human condition. The paths of both films are built on similar ideas, the patriarchal structure, the iron chain of command present in the military world and the fanaticism/violence it generates among those who train and are trained to defend the sovereignty of nations. While in Full Metal Jacket we witness the results of abandoning individuals schooled in unquestioning obedience to orders from superiors to their fate and the consequences of failed decision making, in A Few Good Men I feel we go a step further, we see the genesis of the error in judgment and move from consequences to reparations. I guess Aaron Sorkin had a bit more to say regarding the subject, sorry Kubrick fans, because here I feel the emotional journey is a bit deeper, though also more unrealistic or cartoonish.
But let’s go step by step, first the inciting incident, right? Well, a couple of soldiers enter the room of the infamous cadet Santiago, tie his hands, feet and put a gag in his mouth. An hour later Santiago is pronounced dead by the internist at the Guantanamo Bay base. Daniel Kaffe (Tom Cruise), a dumbass lawyer who has won all his cases without going to trial, is entrusted with the defense of the accused soldiers and becomes acquainted with the events, proving time and again that he is not prepared for what is coming. Daniel is a child, plain and simple, Aaron Sorkin is serious about choosing the character furthest from the self revelation to set up his dramatic arc, which is fine in a way. But unfortunately in practice this is one of the weak points of the story, as Daniel’s initial reactions are too over the top, too cartoonish to be considered plausible and kinda ruin the experience. One scene that I really find a bit ridiculous is the one where he walks into Lt. Colonel Joanne Galloway’s (Demi Moore) office with an apple in his mouth, proving to everyone that he doesn’t respect or value military discipline (something that will change during the movie).
Truth of the matter is Santiago was a mediocre soldier and the high command, in this case Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), wanted to teach him a lesson. A thing the military calls “code red”, however, Santiago suffered from a heart condition and dies in the middle of the reprimand that the two soldiers accused of murder give him under the orders of his superiors. Thus the battle and the obstacles become clear, in order for Daniel to successfully defend the accused soldiers he will have to directly confront Nathan, who is the epitome of the chain of command, the patriarch par excellence, but not only him, but a whole system of beliefs protected by words like justice and honor that are at the heart of the military institution that Daniel despises so much (here there’s a slight hint to Daniel’s relationship with his father, who was a relentless defender of civil rights). However, as I said before, Daniel is a child so the road will be long and tortuous in his search for truth and justice. A journey that will bring him face to face with a series of threshold guardians, as described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” each with major influence over Daniel’s life, all men of strong opinions, dominant men. You see, it turns out that Daniel lived in a world of protection, a childlike world protected both by his litigation skills and his father’s reputation and also by the men in his own life, colleagues and friends who kept him in a childlike state. As Herman Hesse rightly said, to be born you have to break a shell and the shell Daniel has to break is the comfortable position he finds himself in, far from conflict and his own vision of the world, used to taking the easy route.
And well, the most interesting thing about the film I think is the trial, which is apparently Aaron Sorkin’s forte (I think I heard him talk about this somewhere). The thing is, the trial has its own structure and it’s also a constant battle between Daniel and his friend/rival Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) to impose the truth on the facts. We go from the motives for committing the crime to the mode, to Daniel’s theory, to the presentation of star witnesses and at the same time we understand all these individuals, all these military men who confuse honor with self-preservation, who confuse discipline with fanaticism and a revelation in the middle of the trial, a lie in the testimony of one of the accused soldiers, throws Daniel into crisis and his metaphorical death, falling back into childish behaviors, which now appear as a defense against frustration. And it is then that Daniel understands, the only way to win is to face the dragon head on.
The final sequence of the film, the climax of all this drama, stars Daniel and Colonel Nathan R. Jessep. A back and forth between the two that takes the tension to the limit and finally forces the colonel to tell the truth, not only he was the one who gave the order for the code red, but also he thinks it was the right decision (along with the famous dialogue “you can’t handle the truth!”). And that is how the truth ends up being the sword that cuts the head of the dragon, which leads him to fall and to lay bare the shortcomings of the chain of command immersed in the arrogance of the glories of the past, of the archaic way of seeing conflicts and an imperious need for renewal.
And I think that’s all I can say about A Few Good Men, a film that may not start off well, but that gradually builds a complex drama where the truth passes from one side to the other, takes on nuances and concepts such as honor and discipline are put to the test over and over again, perhaps proving to us that true honor is found in the decisions one makes as an individual, with the freedom and responsibility that this entails.
I think there’s at least two aspects of modern narrative techniques from which Pulp Fiction benefits greatly, the idea of choosing a clear premise and immediately setting the most ( apparently ) incapacitated characters to achieve that premise and the enigmatic ability to hide the chronological sense that the non-linear narrative gives to stories. Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, or demonstrated back in 1995, his great ability to build complex and yet surprisingly simple stories. This, which sounds paradoxical, can be summarized in the old proverb that sometimes the simplest is the most complex, taking the narrative technique to its simplest patterns, the essential ones, altering its order, its presentation, but maintaining its deep meaning, is what allows a story like Pulp Fiction to work and not to feel like the sum of three different stories.
Take for example the idea of protagonist, for purists, for academics, this narrative element is defined as the character who carries the emotional weight in the story. From this we can intuit that there is an emotional weight in the story, right? Well this has been called the “tunnel of emotions” or the “simple emotional journey” that the protagonist goes through and that shapes the plot, or that the plot produces in the character (depending if you’re going to be a dick about it). Well apparently Quentin Tarantino took this idea of a protagonist and really just stuck with the simple emotional journey. Why do I say this? Well because the emotional journey in Pulp Fiction is shared by 3 main characters, one for each part of the story (and yes, the movie is episodic). Three major acts define the story, the first part for John Travolta, the second for Bruce Willis and the third for Samuel L. Jackson. However, if we assume that these three characters are one and the same, or in other words, that there is only a single emotional journey between the three of them, we can clearly understand what the film is about.
First, the story of Vincent Vega, the most impulsive of the characters, is the initial world of the story. A character unable to control himself, just back from a vacation in a paradise of drugs and excesses, has the mission to take care of the boss’s wife, a femme fatale that will bring him very close to betrayal and the consequences of excess, but that will not produce in him any change. After this, Vincent arrives at the bar where he meets his boss and Butch (Bruce Willis). In a tense moment, both characters measure their strength and perhaps symbolically exchange roles.
Now it is the turn of the next character, I mean Butch (Bruce Willis), who is warned not to act impulsively, not to be “proud” is what Marcellus Wallace, Vincent’s boss and owner (apparently) of Butch’s destiny, an obviously proud and impulsive boxer, tells him to lose the next fight in the fifth round. But obviously Butch is not going to do this, worse, he has cooked up a plan to win the fight and keep the betting money. A decision that, when carried out, becomes the midpoint of the film, the fulfillment of desire. If Vincent had to restrain himself from taking Mia Wallace to bed (Uma Thurman, Marcelus’ wife) this time Butch disobeys the boss and gets (potentially) what he wants. From here on the film moves on to the classic narrative archetype of the escape from the cave, described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” and carried out to the letter, the final confrontation between Butch (here protagonist of the story) and Marcellus (opponent) results in Butch’s self revelation, the honor inherited from his father, a war hero, which leads him to take the symbolic katana and save Marcellus from the hands of “corrupted soldiers”, thus ending the conflict between the two.
After this, the film gets a little strange, after the end of Butch’s story we move on to the story of Jules, who has another self revelation relatively similar to Butch’s, after miraculously surviving a series of bullets aimed to kill him. Jules decides to quit criminal activities, retire, transform himself into a kind of Siddhartha and wander the world, what he is really telling us is that he wants to get away from conflict and here I think is the crux of the whole thing. Vincent, who doesn’t see the miraculous escape as a prophetic vision, accidentally shoots Marvin, the boy in the car, causing another conflict that makes the film even longer. Could it be that Quentin already had his story ready at the end of Butch’s story but, forced to adhere to the Hollywood canon of three acts of standard movie length, got caught up in the nature of the conflict? Well, Jules does realize that as long as he remains in the criminal world, violent acts will continue to occur and his transition, the decision to stop committing violent acts, leads him to disappear from the film without explanation, because as we already know, when Vincent goes to Butch’s apartment he is killed precisely because he is not with Julius.
For me, the third portion of the film feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the story just like the first part, I understand that it is part of the non-linear plot and that it is the most meta reflection of the story, committing violent acts never ends well or committing violent acts produces conflicts that are only ended with a positive moral decision, be it honor for Butch or a religious revelation for Lucius. Recalling John Truby, the famous script consultant, he points out that in good movies the protagonists make bad decisions all the way to the end, each of those decisions a little less bad than the last, until they reach the point where they realize how wrong they are and then change, save themselves or die. In the case of Pulp Fiction both happen, two are saved and one dies, arguably the worst one of all, the unsalvageable one.
Well, I think that’s it, I decided not to talk about the non-linear editing and stuff, I think we can all make the mental effort to tell us the tale chronologically. Besides I think that’s not the point of the story, but this reflection on the nature of conflict and decisions, something like “making good decisions leads you out of conflict”. Now, for this Quentin Tarantino (the one from 1994) it seems that making good decisions has to do with factors external to the individual, a completely religious look that is closer to the youth free of pessimism and that puts him strangely on par with contemporaries like Richard Linklater. Anyway, I think Quentin Tarantino is a person very studious of literary techniques, which is strange because he keeps saying he didn’t go to film school, but it’s obvious that he has studied a lot of narrative, I also want to say, to finish, that in narrative seems to be a general idea that existence is mostly out of control for the characters, is this a product of the narrative action? I am referring to the process of writing a story. Or is it an acute reflection on the nature of conscious existence?
Through Boyhood, filmmaker Richard Linklater not only shows us in a consistent way the process of childhood towards the end of adolescence, but also manages to build a story full of conflicts and obstacles demonstrating not only his mastery in storytelling but also using these devices as a showcase of how these obstacles both impede and advance human life towards self-knowledge and discernment of a very simple premise, no one knows what they are really doing!
I’ m sure that if I were at the box office of a movie theater and someone asked me, “Do you want to see a movie about the development of a child from infancy to late adolescence? My immediate response would be “but there’s another one about dinosaurs that shoot laser beams out of their eyes!”. How wrong would I be!!! Well I don’t know actually, that laser dinosaur movie sounds good! What I mean is that perhaps the process of a child growing up is not a very interesting tagline from an advertising point of view, neither is this idea of shooting a movie over the course of 12 years, at least not for me initially (although the film it’s certainly a titanic and beautiful achievement). I would even go so far as to say that Linklater has gone beyond the typical American flick on so many levels that the average pop corn devourer may find no way to connect with this story. Themes such as abusive parents, an unstable home, drugs and alcohol as social anesthesia, and the search for identity abound in the 2 hours and 46 minutes of this monumental portrait of the life of an ordinary, but intensely special kid.
Characters abound in this story, but let’s go with the main ones, the nuclear family composed of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) who are the children of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke). Apparently Ethan Hawke’s character doesn’t have a name, LOL. The film starts with the breakup between the two parents, mostly because Dad still prefers to hang out with friends and have a good time, while Olivia is more concerned with being with her kids. This leads to a time lapse where Dad completely disappears from the lives of the children and Olivia, a crucial moment for the rest of the story, as it deeply impacts with the initial desire of Mason, the main character of the film, which is to live with his father and mother together. From the very beginning we see how Mason’s wishes are cut short again and again because of this breakup. Forced to leave his home and his first friend without even being able to say goodbye. Being forced to live with a surrogate father, a violent alcoholic who ends up beating his mother and provoking a second breakup (and then a third) that will bring us closer to one of the most important revelations at the end of the film, that life is very much about letting go.
The form of the conflict is simple in concept, Mason is a child who cannot do what he wants, he is forced to follow the orders of parents, grandmother, teachers and all kinds of adults who impose again and again a truth over his own, the one he saw clearly in the first sequence of the film and that he recovers and reaffirms in the last sequence, that life is only the present and that there is no control over it, but the other way around. In this sense it is extremely interesting the dramatic construction that leads us to this last self revelation of the character, especially because during the first half of the film Mason simply suffers because of others while he finds spaces where to be himself, essentially spaces free of adults. At the same time, adults appear as imposing beings in need of attention, especially characters like Mason’s father, but also some teachers and even some older kids, trying to lecture younger kids and inevitably delivering lousy advice.
During the midpoint of the story we encounter Mason’s first rebellion in the concrete pursuit of a desire that takes him out of the family in which he is immersed and prepares him for what is to come, a life outside it. I refer to the sequence of his birthday, where he prefers to spend time with friends and enjoying the moment with his girlfriend. After this begins the slow process of learning to leave behind the past, childhood and childish things, to launch himself into the future, at which point the movie ends! The more Mason moves towards understanding that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how things are, the more we see how the rest of the characters fail or get it wrong in comparison to himself and how he himself becomes increasingly immune to outside opinions. All of this culminates in two sequences leading up to the end of the story. Take it as the final confrontation with his father and then his mother. The father (Ethan Hawke) sequence is interesting in the tough love sense, Mason wants some paternal compassion one last time, but Dad greets him with a couple of truths about life, mainly that it’s a mistake to subject your self-worth to the opinions of others and that taking control of your life is the only thing that allows you to find meaning in existence. Then, with the mother, Mason faces the consequences of leaving the past behind, childhood, represented in the crying of the mother, who confesses that her whole life has been little more than a few steps she has taken without really thinking about it and that taking care of her children was the only thing that really made sense to her.
Past both of the previously described sequences, Mason makes his way down the road in search of his own place, and finally finds it in the conversation with a college girl in the middle of the mountains. What is it? Well, that what Mason felt at the beginning of the story looking up at the clouds is the only truth in his life, that moments pass and take us, that people have no greater control over them and that he himself was fine all along. And so it is that the 12-year journey of filming concludes, the same way it began, as a series of moments that chronicle a conflict, that present a series of complications and desires, but that ultimately produce no change but a reunion.