How to Write Powerful Characters
By John Jarvis.
What is the difference between drama and melodrama? One of the major differences is the development of the main character. But even if you have a well-structured story with a strong central character who has a backstory, character arc, and a great antagonist, there is still a difference between a drama and a melodrama. Why?
Before answering, let me offer two illustrations. The other night, I saw once again one of my favorite films: the classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Recently, I also saw another one of my favorite films: GHOST. Now, few would have difficulty in identifying the classic; fewer still would maintain that GHOST was not a two- handkerchief picture. Yet it won’t last. Again, why?
To answer that question, one has to go beyond the superficial similarities: namely, that both are love stories (in the Jarvis Method, both are Love Story or Extreme Love Story Types), that both stories’ main characters have a backstory and a character arc, and that both begin in an atypical setting (as the Jarvis Method would say, both Extraordinary Worlds are developed well). In addition, both stories are structured well. (Indeed, a persuasive argument could be made that GHOST is the better structured film.)
Where the similarities end is where we’ll find the qualities that separate great theme stories–great drama–from lesser action stories and melodrama. In WUTHERING HEIGHTS the two main characters (Heathcliff and Cathy) have a universal quality. For whether we are rich or poor, ugly or beautiful — indeed, regardless of our condition — we can relate to them.
Conversely, the two characters in GHOST are not universal; they are fairly well-adjusted and good-looking persons who come from an environment we perhaps remember (more on that in a moment), and who have no deeper problem than the fact they have lost a loved one. In short, the characters in GHOST are two typically sixties-generation types, grown older. Most people today can probably relate to yuppie love. But would people from a future time be able to relate to such a story? True, they might be able to figure out what the story is about, but it would leave them cold. In WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Emily Bronte takes her characters in another, higher direction.
And this brings us to the problem of a contemporary versus a mythological character. Let’s define terms: A mythological character is more real because the character is an archetype; it is based on pre-contemporary human experience. Opposed to this is what might be called the contemporary character. This person is simply a product of the author’s invention or his social environment. This contemporary character may do all the things that writing books and teachers say to do, but in the end the character is bound within a certain time period — a puppet of the author and his environment.
Hence, Heathcliff is a symbol — an archetype — for the beast entering society. As with all archetypical characters, all adults have experienced this element that always revolutionizes our well-made world, and guides us “though the dark night of the soul” toward a heaven or a hell. When this happens on a grand scale, we get a Christ or a Hitler. On a lesser scale, it seems, are the characters in WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
Yet since our picture dreamings are mythological at base, we experience emotions, good and evil, at a deeper level than possible with a conscious-made (that is, contemporary) character. In short, the characters in WUTHERING HEIGHTS are both Hitler and Christ. This archetypical quality then is ADDED to the emotions we feel from a mere love story (melodrama), not only making for a very powerful experience, but also relating to something beyond the shadows for all of us.
— John Jarvis
Batman’s Powerful Symbolism
By Edward Feit.
Often, when reading movie reviews, I’m astonished at how reviewers seem unable to understand the appeal of a play or movie. The Batman series is one such case. Many critics trashed the series of films because of, in the words of one reviewer, “its mean spirited and depressing character.” Nonetheless, the public voted at the box office. All three recent Batman movies — Batman Returns (1992), Batman, Mask of the Phantasm (1993), and Batman Forever (1995) — were smash hits.
In fact, those are the latest of a long line of Batman movies. Versions of Batman appeared in 1966 and again in 1986. And Batman was a hit television series, too. Clearly, the caped crusader hasn’t lost his appeal.
Why is this? Why have movies whose plots sometimes appear confused and episodic succeeded so well time and time again?
True, the Batman movies were a box office success, in part, because they were highly imaginative and were based on a proven, ever-popular comic-strip character — they were entertaining. That, however, was not all. The primary reason for their success, I suggest, is that Batman packs powerful symbols, and nothing beats symbols in conveying a message, especially one based on the social beliefs of its time. Unlike the proliferating James Bond series, Batman tapped some deep-seated psycho-political roots.
Each month, I’m going to review a popular movie, illustrating how it fits into — or, sometimes, doesn’t fit into — the general mold recommended by the Jarvis Method (and, therefore, StoryCraft Software). I’m now going to present a brief synopsis of Batman Returns. (I choose that Batman movie, partly because I think it’s the best of the series, and partly because it’s the one I know best.) Much of the plot reflects fairly well the pattern suggested by the Jarvis Method. But as I present this overview, see if you can detect also what underlying political messages are being symbolized in the movie.
As a film noir the movie begins in tragedy when two parents drop their deformed baby boy into the river. His bassinet stays afloat and he ends up in the sewers, which is peopled by penguins who bring him up. Those events represent well the classic movements prescribed in the Jarvis Method, in which the hero (yes, the hero can be “the bad guy) leaves the Ordinary World and crosses into the Extraordinary World.
Next, we see Gotham City’s mayor officiating at a miserable Christmas-tree lighting ceremony and learn that the mayor, like most of the city’s officials, is in the pay of the evil Max Schreck, evidently the city’s wealthiest man, who plots to corner the city’s energy supply.
A gang of terrorists, dressed as circus people, disrupt the ceremony and kidnap Schreck, carrying him into the sewers to meet with the repulsive Penguin, as the baby, now grown, calls himself. The two, equally evil, strike a deal. The Penguin agrees not to disclose the dirt he has on Schreck if Schreck will help him find his parents.
To that end, Schreck mounts a successful public-relations campaign that gets the Penguin nominated for mayor. Suspecting that Schreck and Penguin are involved in some evil scheme, Batman investigates the Penguin, who he discovers was involved in the disappearance of a number of children.
In the meantime, Selina Kyle, Schreck’s secretary, gets pushed out of the office tower window after discovering Schreck’s energy scheme. In a genuinely moving scene, cats emerge from the shadows and lick the dead Selina’s fingers, each giving her one of their nine lives.
As a result, Selina rejects her old life, fashions herself a skin tight, and emerges as Catwoman dressed in a kinky Cat-suit. So attired, she sets out to revenge herself on those who treated her so badly. (One unexplained mystery is how Catwoman gets in and out of that Cat-suit — or even how she goes to the bathroom.)
Of course Catwoman’s alter ego, Selina, meets Batman’s alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne, and the two develop quite a yen for each other. Unfortunately, before they can get grunting and groaning, Penguin springs his trap, setting out to kidnap all Gotham city’s little firstborns, a plot frustrated by Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne.
Penguin sends out a flock of bomb-carrying penguins to destroy Gotham City. But Batman, aided by his faithful butler and mentor, saves the day. Catwoman, in turn, kills Schreck and escapes to meow on Gotham City’s rooftops.
Interestingly, once viewers realize that Penguin is the protagonist (yes, a “hero” can be the “bad guy”) and Batman the antagonist, the story obviously follows the pattern laid forth in StoryCraft. The beginning of Penguin’s journey is obvious, as are the worlds of Gotham City in general and of Penguin in particular. We meet the hero and his helpmates early on, and we see Penguin enter the new world when he leaves the sewers. I won’t detail Penguin’s passage, but leave that to you should you rent the movie. Among characters, in addition, we have every element of the Jarvis Method, including the Mentor, Wayne’s butler, and Selina as the Shapechanger.
Now, did you catch the psycho-political symbolism in the synopsis? Think about it. Gotham City bears striking resemblance to the way many Americans view their country. We, for instance, see venal politicians serving special interests and power. In one telling scene we see the impotence of officials and the public in Batman’s absence, while public relations consultants are making evil appear good. (Incidentally, one of the funniest scenes has the Penguin, introduced to the two oily and obsequious PR people, biting the male consultant’s nose). This, though, is only a small part of the symbolism embedded in Batman Returns.
Many people believe that they are in the hands of forces they can neither understand nor control. They believe that the government serves not the people but the mysterious interests that fund candidates for office. They believe that they are subject to a government that taxes more and more and returns less and less.
Indeed, the government cannot provide even the minimal service expected of a government, to keep its people and their property secure. Streets have become battlefields. The police are unable to protect them from muggers and murderers, or their children from the temptation of drug pushers.
Worse yet, many feel that they’ve lost control not only of their government, but also of their privacy and selfhood. They are the subjects of dossiers in hands unknown. Their most private secrets, or even slander, can be propagated to millions on the Internet.
They have the sense that things are constantly getting worse and that their society is decaying around them. Hence, the vast appeal of strange cults and religions, as well as extreme right and left wing organizations.
The media, including song and cinema, mock their moral values, while their families fall apart. And all the while, political correctness prevents them from expressing their feelings.
Of course, we’re dealing with perceptions. Objectively, things haven’t quite gotten to that point. But beliefs always outweigh facts; otherwise, statistics would be the most powerful propaganda.
Batman movies draw audiences because they play on this public sense of malaise. Viewers are well aware that Batman movies are fictional. But those movies reflect — symbolize, if you will — what viewers really think is happening around them. We often here defenders of the media say that the media doesn’t cause violence, but merely reflects what’s actually happening. And the opponents are often heard to say that media’s depiction of violence causes violence. What may be the most important fact, though, is that, for better or worse, media violence — and media, in general — reflects not so much what is happening as what the viewers believe is happening. And that affirmation of belief is, I suggest, immensely influential and sometimes perhaps even potent.
Symbols pack punches; think, for instance, of Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter, or Poe’s Raven. Think also of the deerstalker cap and magnifying glass of Sherlock Holmes, which are the symbols that spell detective.
So, find some object, sign, or plot that symbolizes your theme. Make it unique and you may be on your way to immortality.
— Feit, professor (emeritus) at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst, has worked for many years as a professional writer.