Creating equivocal, less certain characters for a post-self-help age
Do more equivocal times call for more equivocal characters? How do we adjust characterization to reflect the unsure, post-self-help, sensitivity-trained ways we live now? Is it still sufficient for characters to want something and do anything to get it?
The mantra of "Who am I? What do I want? Who or what is in my way? What will I do about it" is one of the traditional building blocks of actor training. It's as good a starting point as any to help an actor situate themselves in the given circumstances, and start to feel their way into a character and the story. The spectacle of blindly self-interested characters colliding against each other has long made for great stage comedy and tragedy - it's life with the boring bits removed.
But what exactly are those so-called "boring bits" and should we be paying more attention to them in writing and building characters? We live, arguably, in a post-self-help era, and a lot more is popularly known about different personality types, communication styles, the harmful effects of poor parenting, and character traits like narcissism, passive aggression, excessive pleasing, drama addiction and others. People in Shakespeare's time weren't "working on their issues." They were just needing what they needed, and doing what they had to do to try and get it.
Now, we are trained to be aware, to meditate, to control our reactions, to be interpersonally and culturally sensitive, to take factors like the other person's social and emotional makeup into account. In short, people are a lot more considerate, or at least aware enough about how to avoid or handle others they might have friction with. There's more carefulness, less reactivity in the moment, and a lot more couching of our words in the language of sensitivity.
But what about the seemingly peaceful meditation instructor who would like to rip a new one for a beggar on the way to class because she is stressed about debt and tired of helping others? Or the bullied worker whose first impulse is "rage abatement breathing" instead of fight or flight? We may be more aware in our dealings with one another, but are we still rage and hurt driven, self-interested little babies at heart? We may project more awareness and sensitivity, but deep down, we may not have changed much. The audience deserves to be able to read all of this.
So how do we depict this complexity? In film, we are aided hugely by advances in cinematography. Smaller, higher-resolution cameras allow us to get right in people's faces and read the tiniest of nuances. To be able to grab great resolution footage with a device as portable as a high-end smartphone opens up amazing possibilities. To hang around a character on a long take can reveal some very cool moments that can help us depict some of those not-so-boring bits of life.
In terms of writing characters, we also need to let actors do more. I really admire the work of director Mike Leigh, and his approach to working with actors and developing characters. By working extensively on a character's back story, the actor can bring a wealth of character self-knowledge to the role. Not just the fact that, for example, they were poorly parented, but how those wounds have led to a pattern of life-limiting decisions. The script can and often should be a living, malleable document that evolves with the characters.
If our aim is to tell contemporary stories in a way that audiences can identify with, perhaps we should be adding some of the smaller internal character details - the glimpse of a childhood wound, the self-doubt, the socially accepted untruths - back into our film stories. Should we lean a bit less on the words, a bit less on the actions and a bit more on the internal moments of humanity that can be rendered visible? Might this help our stories more truthfully reflect who and what we really are, self-knowledge and all? What do you think?
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.