Crafting Characters

On the first day of a new film class for the spring semester, my professor asked the class which components a character needs to grab our attention. One young woman said the character had to be likeable. But is that actually necessary?

Luckily, someone other than myself brought up Inside Llewyn Davis so that I did not have to potentially embarrass myself with blabbing about how great it is. (I’ve done enough of that in two other classes in the past week – one of which was not a film class.) Some people aren’t willing to empathize with a character whom they perceive as a “jerk” without considering any of the underlying causes for why the character acts that way.

Another argument I’d like to make is for the pure aesthetic enjoyment of actors. Why do we care about Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)? Because it’s Al Pacino in his prime, exaggerated Brooklyn accent, long eyelashes, nervous swagger, everything all together. You could ask the same of Llewyn Davis, of Max Fischer from Rushmore, of Graham Dalton from Sex, Lies, and Videotape. What draws us to a character? Isn’t it the actor as much as the writing?

The first time we see Tom Waits’ character, Zack, in Down by Law (1986), he rather dramatically enters a bedroom by flopping onto a doorjamb… and that’s all. It’s a simple action. But would you care if it were a different actor? Jim Jarmusch could have asked his casting director for some other, more experienced actor, but he wanted Tom Waits because of who Tom Waits is – weird, offbeat, unique.

Maybe the question is one of introversion. I’m pretty sure most of the characters I’ve named are introverts (I’m not sure about Sonny Wortzik). I believe that likeability is a subjective concept rather than some concrete idea based only on perceived “likeable” actions. (Man saves cat from tree; man must be good. How cut and dried.) Maybe it helps that I’m an introvert. I can empathize with characters who do things they can’t always explain, at least not to those not accustomed to those tendencies. Whether a character is a loveable loner or a misanthrope, I’m willing to take a chance. I don’t automatically reject characters just because they’re outside the norm.

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