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& SPECIAL CHARACTERS
When writing a script you will use different characters to help define the protagonist and tell his/her story. In addition to the antagonist, there may be supporting characters like the "friend" or the "love interest" or the "protégé."
Each character fulfills a specific function in the script. While the antagonist drives the hero to take action, supporting characters do very much the opposite. They allow the hero to give voice to internal matters. Things like fears, concerns, intuitions, passions, etc.
For example, the friend may act as a confidant, allowing the protagonist to voice his ambitions. The love interest may work at cross-purposes with the protagonist, creating doubt or concern.
These roles can overlap, but for the richest story development, it's best to have each character fulfill a specific task. Otherwise, the information you convey may become redundant. In more complex scripts, characters fulfill these roles in relation to each other as well as the protagonist.
Sometimes an issue is so personal to the hero that he cannot tell anyone. This creates a dilemma in screen storytelling. How do you convey this information to the audience?
The classical approach, of course, is to use narration. This can be in the third person, as in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), or the first person, as in Sunset Boulevard (1950). The first person is arguably stronger since it is a firsthand account from the protagonist's point of view. In the film Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle is so isolated that narration is the only logical choice.
There are different approaches to narration. First, the narration can be a straightforward voice-over. To make it a bit more interesting it can be in the form of a diary, as we find in Travis' case. Finally, the narration can be snippets of a conversation or interrogation, as in Dolores Claiborne (1995).
Narration is a tireless approach that never seems to get old, especially when applied in new and innovative ways.
William Shakespeare solved the problem of secret thoughts with the use of the soliloquy. This is when a character talks to himself. In other words, the character speaks his thoughts aloud. Not in phrases, either, but full speeches!
Perhaps the most famous is the "To be or not to be" soliloquy by Hamlet, and who hasn't heard Juliet's, "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?"
To change this up a bit, Shakespeare would sometimes use a ghost in the scene. This accomplished the same goal as the soliloquy, but rather than a straight speech, it allowed the protagonist to have something of a dialogue to work through his issues.
Can this retro approach be used today? You may not realize it, but this is one of the hottest techniques used in long form TV drama.
Contemporary screenwriters have devised a modern variation, employing a "special" character that only the protagonist sees and interacts with. The special character is otherwise invisible in the world of the screenplay. It can be a ghost, but not necessarily.
Granted, this all seems bizarre. On paper it can't possibly work with today's audiences, but it does and is used more often than you may think. It is so well executed that it slips by, not drawing undue attention to itself, which is the way screenwriting should be.
In the show Dexter (2009-2013), for example, anti-hero Dexter Morgan is a lot like Travis Bickle. Because he is a sociopath, he cannot possibly share his innermost thoughts without putting himself in jeopardy. While Travis used the classic diary narration, Dexter regularly talked to his deceased father (his father is most likely imagined, though it is never explained).
The reason this works is that most people, whether they realize it or not, have similar conversations in their heads. The only difference is that in film, the special character is physically shown to the audience.
The use of an invisible character is not new to screen storytelling; however, it was originally limited to horror or humor, typically in the form of a ghost. An early example of comedic use is found in Topper (1937).
In this form, the invisible character is essentially a story device rather than a character that teases out depth of personality in the protagonist. Ironically, it was not until viewing audiences became more sophisticated that the invisible character would be used in more serious roles.
In the film Ghost (1990), we begin see movement away from horror and humor, towards dramatic use. In the TV series Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Nathaniel Fisher, the deceased patriarch, becomes a regular character, appearing to his sons in serious situations.
Since then, the invisible character has moved so far away from the stereotypical poltergeist, that when they appear, audiences don't see them as "ghosts," but rather, just another character.
Whether the invisible character is an apparition or imagined, is not even important in light of the character's contribution to understanding the protagonist. The fact that this actually works is a tribute to both the level of today's screenwriting and the sophistication of the viewing audience.
In recent years, memorable "special" characters have included:
- Caprica Six, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
- Harry Morgan, Dexter (2006-2013)
- Ed Gein, Hitchcock (2012)
- John Scott, Fringe (2008-2013)
- Dr. Franklin, Stargate Universe (2009-2011)
- Sura, Spartacus (2010-2013)
- Merle Dixon, Walking Dead (2010 - 2013)
To summarize so far, the main goal of the special character is to allow the protagonist to reveal more about himself to the audience without the use of "real" characters in the world of the script.
In a successful screenplay, characters should be affected by their interactions with each other. The special character's interaction with the protagonist is no different. But what is the impact?
It's difficult to characterize this since each story has its own peculiarities. More likely than not, however, the special character will act as a morale compass. We see this time and again. In fact, you can make the argument that the special character is indeed the protagonist's conscience.
There is no question that the use of the special character is more risky than narration. Because the technique so different, it has the danger of drawing attention to itself if not executed skillfully. This could have dire consequences for the film as a whole. If used in too many films, there is certainly the chance that it may run its course and become a cliché.
On the positive side, because the protagonist may grow or at least change from his interaction with the special character, the overall affect on the audience is much more powerful than the various forms of narration.
Ultimately, the special character should only be used when the protagonist cannot confide in anyone else or has no one else to turn to. In other words, when all other avenues are exhausted. It is your "ace in the hole," so to speak. -Lou LaVolpe
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