Char­ac­ters under pressure

Char­ac­ters can only be as inter­esting as the forces that oppose them”

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s axiom may seem to be self-evident but, from the writer’s point of view, it’s the imple­ment­a­tion of that prin­ciple that is crucial. If Char­acter and Story are aspects of the same mech­anism, the way they work together is not neces­sarily always the same.

Yes, we identify with a char­acter that is put under pres­sure by the story but it is the character’s reac­tion to it that matters most. For a char­acter to really gain our sympathy, they must be capable of actively pursuing their goals, in Mckee’s parlance, “to the end of the line”.

Pinball or chess?

Pachinko machines are a Japanese obses­sion; an arcade game in which steel balls “cascade down through a dense forest of pins. If the balls go into certain loca­tions, they may be captured and sequences of events may be triggered that result in more balls being released” (Wiki­pedia).

You don’t have to be Japanese to see how there could be some­thing mesmeric about watching this inter­ac­tion of little balls following their inev­it­able traject­ories, how it might hold your atten­tion. There’s a definite satis­fac­tion in watching rows of dominoes falling.

Some films, partic­u­larly genre films, where the element of surprise matters less, appeal to us precisely because of this display of cause and effect. Comedy is another example which relies on the connec­tions that are made within the story as a source of humour.

But often the really powerful moments in films are the ones where char­ac­ters are presented with a choice;  one that is diffi­cult, where the outcome is uncer­tain, and where everything is at stake.

Such moments can, and often do, feel inev­it­able but they are should not be predict­able. The reward they offer is far greater than the pleasure of watching little balls running along well-oiled tracks.  If you can engineer such a moment in your story, then it is a real indic­a­tion that you have integ­rated char­acter and plot successfully.

Char­ac­ters are born free …

But every­where they are chained to the story-line. There­fore a good ques­tion to ask your­self when you are devel­oping your script is:

What choices have I given my char­ac­ters and how important are they to my story?

Or, in other words, have I created the kind of story where events mainly happen to my char­ac­ters rather than being the result of their actions?

If you feel you have got the balance wrong, then look at your story again. Remember, you’re the one in charge. There are many ways to integ­rate story and char­acter and ‘shifting the goal-posts’ is perfectly legit­imate; in fact, it’s actively encour­aged. Often the solu­tion to making your char­acter more proactive is to look at what drives them – the array of open and hidden agendas that propel them through the story.

Getting to the heart

Two very productive ques­tions to ask about a char­acter are these:

What is the abso­lute worst thing that could happen to this char­acter?  This is a way of opening up and exploring new levels of conflict that may not have occurred to you before.

What is the abso­lute best thing that could happen to this char­acter? This looks at the options offered to your char­acter within the story as well as their most secret of dreams.

Finding a rela­tion­ship between these two aspects of a char­acter is often the key to a successful film. Many redemption-themed films use the formula: “how could the worst thing turn out to be the best?”


Antag­on­ists are char­ac­ters that personify the forces opposing the Prot­ag­onist (see Char­acter Models). Not every film story has an Antag­onist, of course, but films that do feature one give them­selves an auto­matic advantage. Now you have a living, breathing, wilful opponent of everything the Prot­ag­onist wants that you can use in your story-telling to drive the plot along and generate dramatic conflict.

Antag­on­ists often upstage the heroes and, in a few inter­esting cases, they can some­times be more deserving of our sympathy and moral approval than the ‘offi­cial’ Prot­ag­onist of the story. It doesn’t always occur to a writer to create an antag­onist in their script but, if you can justify it and find the oppor­tunity, it’s often an excel­lent idea.

Oleanna 1994

In this screen adapt­a­tion of David Mamet’s play, an intel­lec­tu­ally compla­cent lecturer is accused by a student of making inde­cent advances.

The struggle for ascend­ancy is very much out in the open here but Mamet’s skill is in not sema­phoring the moment when the shift in the balance of power, or ‘tipping point,’ occurs. It happens in a small and subtle moment. This shows great craft and is typical of Mamet’s sense of structure.

Hard Candy 2005

A young girl meets a man online and goes back to his home. Instead of being seduced by him, she drugs him, ties him up, and tries to get him to admit to murder.

Another play adapt­a­tion, like Oleanna, this is a claus­tro­phobic drama that manip­u­lates the audience’s sympathies by not revealing initially who is inno­cent and who is guilty.

The girl, despite appear­ances, is much tougher than the man and prepared to go to extremes. Is he the victim or her? Suspense builds as she tries to break him and he tries to escape from her.

The Good Father 1985

In an intel­li­gent script written by Chris­topher Hampton there are several layers and what seems to be a film about the war between the sexes proves to have unex­pected depth.

Anthony Hopkins, in a perform­ance that crackles with suppressed rage, plays an angry divorcee who comes to the aid of a hen-pecked husband in a marital dispute. But what appears at first to be a lively attack on a metro­pol­itan 80’s culture where women have all the power turns about to be a story about emotional alien­a­tion instead.

Grosse Pointe Blanke 1997

Pushed far enough, antag­onism, of course, is funny. In this scene between rival hitmen John Cusack and Dan Ackroyd, the para­noia and suspi­cion reach the level of black comedy.

Tough choices

If a character’s true nature, their so-called deep char­acter, is revealed by putting them under pres­sure then the scene in a film where a char­acter is forced to make an impossible decision is also the moment where the audi­ence most iden­ti­fies with the char­acter. Many films contain such scenes.

In the selec­tion of clips below the stakes that underpin the ines­cap­able choice that the char­acter is forced to make may vary but the pres­sure is a constant factor.

Nick Of Time 1996

Johnny Depp is an ordinary man trav­el­ling with his daughter who finds himself caught up in a night­mare. Kidnapped by Chris­topher Walken and his accom­plice (Roma Maffia), he is given a choice: either he commits a polit­ical assas­sin­a­tion or his daughter will be killed.

In this scene, an attempted rescue goes wrong and his daughter’s life is on the line. The whole film plays out in ‘real time’ which gives it an extra imme­diacy and urgency.

Miller’s Crossing 1990

In the ruth­less gang­ster ruled world of Miller’s Crossing mercy is a luxury that nobody can afford so when Gabriel Byrne has to make the decision to kill John Turturro or spare him, the full weight of that world is pressing down upon him.

Not killing him will be a bad decision. He knows it and we, the audi­ence, know it too. And yet we want him to let the victim go so that he does not kill the good inside him.

Killer 1994

In this strange and rather under­rated film, a hitman, played by Antony La Paglia, has become so indif­ferent to killing that he does it almost by reflex until he is given the task of killing a woman (Mimi Rogers) who has offended some Mafia chief.

To his surprise, she is expecting his visit and, stranger still, she wants him to kill her. But here is the twist: he falls in love with her. The struggle between this new-found love and the pres­sure to do what is required of him plays out in a story that has the feel of a classic tragedy but also some of the dark, trapped quality of a classic film noir.


Other case studies
Sophie_thmb SOPHIE’S CHOICE 1982
Based on William Styron’s novel, this was an early eighties love story in the ‘new America’ of European immig­rants. The revel­a­tions about a survivor’s past are used as part of the film’s powerful denouement.


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