Characters require contrast. Sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, right? But as with every basic concept in screenwriting, it’s easier said than done. My writing partner and I were reminded of this recently while working on our current, comprehensive rewrite.
There’s this one character, see … and he’s, well … he’s a bad guy. But by introducing him immediately in all his ugliness (which is what we did in the first draft), we made an important mistake: We left ourselves no room to surprise the audience with his nastiness. In other words, the character was too predictable, and therefore his dramatic usefulness was seriously compromised.
It’s easy to make this mistake, because you want the audience to “get” why someone’s going to be such a bastard to some other character. You want to make a point. But that’s precisely where the craft aspect of screenwriting comes in. A screenplay has to be written deliberately rather than impulsively. Dosing character information creates tension and surprise, and it’s a delicate business. It sometimes requires you to write backwards. To start from the effect, the reveal, and carefully cover up the path leading to it with misleading, contrasting actions.
In relation to this particular issue, a metaphor is called for. Popular mythology has it that if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will jump right out, whereas if you put it in a pan of cold water and turn the heat on, the frog will realize too late what’s going on, and boil to death.
Same with a character: If you introduce a character in one way (sympathetic or otherwise) and subsequently add tiny increments of behaviour that reveal a contrasting trait, it will happen almost imperceptibly, until suddenly you realize the character is someone other than you thought.
So back to our bad guy. We decided to introduce him as a relatively nice guy. As follows:
He’s travelling, alone. We see him arrive at the airport. In trivial interactions we see he’s a charming, friendly guy. Then we see him in a hotel room. He calls home, speaks tenderly to his young kid on the phone. In his hand he holds a couple of children’s drawings and assures the child he’s going to take them to grandpa tomorrow. He wishes the child goodnight, exchanges a few pleasantries with his wife and hangs up. That’s the surface: a loving father and husband.
Now for the contrast: While he’s on the phone, the man unpacks food he’s taken with him for the trip. The careful way he unpacks and neatly arranges the items, suggests a degree of obsessive behaviour. So, almost imperceptibly, here’s a hint that this is also a man who plans ahead meticulously and needs to be in control.
The idea is that the discrepancy between the man’s spontaneous, loving attitude to his child and his calculating, premeditated behaviour in the hotel room, is a contrast that will gather more and more meaning as the story progresses.
It’s impossible to know whether this scene will survive, as is, into the next draft. However, just consciously deciding to introduce this character differently, has made him more contrasted and intriguing than he was in the previous draft, which only presented his bad side. And that’s a step towards a more interesting and intriguing screenplay overall, because the contrast creates scope for tension and surprise.