Eternal Characters, Everything Else, Features — August 12, 2015 at 3:00 pm



Movie characters can be molded and shaped by a number of factors: source material, the aura of the actor playing the character, and the tone and style of the plot itself. Directors can also strongly affect the type of character that eventually lives on screen, whether they’re making strategic decisions about the character’s look, talk, or actions, or whether just adding that certain something to build a “type” of characters in her or his films.

When this happens, it’s interesting to consider what kind of canon a director is making for her or his career. They’re not just making films; they’re creating a realm of characters that almost feel related. A family of characters populates these directors’ films and carry certain threads throughout them. This connection between characters goes beyond thematic recurrences and solidifies that director’s viewpoint and style through a shared method of character development. Here are the top directors who have beget a very particular family of characters in their movies.

Director #1 – Quentin Tarantino

More than any other filmmaker, Tarantino’s films revolve around characters that could all more or less be related. Yes, Tarantino writes most of his films, but his characters share more between them than just a similar syntax. Tarantino’s characters are all about the details, honing their particular preferences, styles, vocabulary, and generally using their every decision and action as a means of perfecting their way of living. They don’t just survive; they survive in the style that best fits them (think Butch finding the right weapon, Dr. Schultz expounding about the perfect pour of beer, etc.).

More than anything, Tarantino’s characters are the movie (as evidenced by the fact that most of his films are even named after their main character or group of characters). In his films, the viewer has the sense that the already characters existed with their quirks and mantras, and then the plot just unfolded around them. His characters aren’t shaped by the film’s plot; the plot is transformed by the characters it serves, much like, perhaps, life itself is drastically impacted by the people living it.

james-stewart-vertigo-thumb-400x230-32546Director #2 – Alfred Hitchcock

Appropriately, Hitchcock’s Character Family preserves a common thread of fear or discomfort. Interestingly though, their fear usually begins outside of the suspense of the main plot. The non-murder plots in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief revolve around the heroes’ fear of change and commitment. Vertigo, around the hero’s fear of heights. Shadow of a Doubt features the heroine’s boredom and fear that nothing interesting will ever happen to her. In each circumstance, the character’s preliminary fears and worries over life are trumped or put into perspective by the much more violent dangers unveiled by the plot. As each character fights to triumph over the evil in their story, they simultaneously comprehend and master the worries and fears that dominated them before their mystery began.

Director #3 – Guy Ritchie  

Aside from sharing a certain criminal lifestyle, Ritchie’s characters also share the similarity of service to the plot. Contrary to the way in which Tarantinos’ plots follow his characters, Ritchie’s characters follow the plot. Often, as a writer, I would argue Lock-Stock-and-Two-Smoking-Barrelsthat this is a bad method of character development. Effectively, it usually is. However, Ritchie proves an exception to the rule, in that his characters don’t just serve the plot; they live and die by the plot. Their every breath is so tenuously tied to each plot point that the characters are heightened, not muddled by the complexities of a twisting and turning story. The plot was already there and the characters are then made and changed by its details. Almost like a Seinfeld episode, if any moment in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels were altered, the fate of each character would be drastically altered. His characters serve as tools to fuel the plot, but without losing their humanity or realism. Eddie’s desire to please his father and find success is prevalent and necessary throughout the movie, but his service to the plot trumps that emotional context, and the story hinges more about how he fits into the overall complexities of the criminal realignment occurring, than how his character’s emotional status changes. Somehow, this method of character development doesn’t objectify the characters, but finds a sweet spot of humor and insight that manages to convey the smallness of each human’s existence, without disregarding the fascinating significance of each human life.

Each of these directors do more than just direct their actors. They shape the characters by infusing a personal style or mantra into the characters’ development. Before a viewer knows what film they’re actually watching, the director can be identified by the mere nature of the characters. Often, these telltale signs of a director’s Canon of Characters speaks to the types of truths a director likes to explore, from the impact people have on life and its outcomes, to the way violence puts life’s more minute fears into perspective, to the notion that individuals have a small yet undeniably interesting role to play in the convoluted plot of life they serve.