Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is it that makes some characters memorable?

And why are there so few of them?

Let’s face it: if you could remember even ten characters from a year of watching movies regularly, you’d be doing well. And if that year happened to be 2012, with its particularly mindless blockbuster line-up, you’d really be challenged.

Off the top of my head, the most memorable characters from the last six months (of movies I’ve seen) are:

  • Tommy, the bereaved, tormented single dad in Citadel. Brilliant character, exceptionally well played by Aneurin Barnard.

  • Christophe Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. By far the best thing in or about the movie.

  • Ditto for Killer Joe, played in truly disturbing fashion by Matthew McConaughey in the eponymous movie. He was pure evil, and it broke McConaughey right out of his nice-guy, romcom rut.

  • Robert Miller in Arbitrage. Richard Gere clearly had a ball playing this venal, amoral banker, and boy did it come across.

  • Tiffany, played by Jennifer Laurence in Silver Linings Playbook. In my opinion she was a more interesting character even than the main character Pat Solitano – so maybe the Academy judges were right?

  • On the other hand, Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross in The Place Beyond the Pines was an amazingly-written part – definitely stuck in my head long after I saw the movie.

  • And last but not least – for now – female Israeli soldier Segen in World War Z. Am I the only person to think that the movie would have been WAY more interesting if she had been the main character? The woman is a bad-ass: she endures a limb amputation with nothing more than some airline bottles of vodka and kills way more zombies than Brad Pitt (at least by my count). I was dying to know more about her and really hope she’s in the (mooted) sequel , which is surely the sign of a good character?


That’s seven memorable characters in six months, and that’s despite the fact that I have a ridiculous, Asperger’s-like memory for movies.

Obviously all the characters above are played by brilliant actors, which helps. But even a talented actor can’t do much with a poorly-written character – see the usually-great Mirielle Enos struggle to bring her insipid wife character alive in World War Z.

So it comes down to good writing and decent character work on the writer’s part. I think great characters have to have the following:

  • An identifiable, recognisable, compelling goal. It’s crazy how often I come out of a film having no idea what the main character actually wanted.

  • A truly awesome obstacle in their path. This can be a brilliant bad guy, or an awful situation to get out of, or both. Without this, we can’t root for them, or get caught up in their story. They can also BE the obstacle themselves – Killer Joe and Robert Miller, for example, are the architects of their own different, but similarly unpleasant ends.

  • They have to have their own unique take on the world. Tommy is agoraphobic and his whole life is ruled by fear. Tiffany has had mental issues and has come to believe that she’s unworthy of happiness. Dr. Schultz has a very original approach to bounty-hunting and loves old German myths. Avery Cross is ferociously ambitious and this quality dictates all of his actions, good or bad. At the end of the day, these quirks and ticks are what make these characters real.


Seeing one good movie with a character that stands out is what I love about cinema and what keeps me coming back again and again. Now I just have to follow my own advice and aim to write a character that other people will remember as much as these ones…

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