Yesterday we looked at one basic screenwriting principle: Plot = Structure. Today another one:
Character = Function
There are three points worth making re this principle. The first is pretty simple: Every character in a screenplay has to be there for a reason. That reason is their narrative function, how who they are and what they do is tied to the story’s narrative. This pertains at a macro and micro level: Each character has a function to the overall narrative as well as to each scene.
The idea of character = function is specifically relevant to screenplays which are unique literary forms. They are shorter than novels, therefore the story is more compressed. As screenwriters, we have to be judicious in the choices we make re our characters, and the best way I know to make those decisions and shape the roster of our story’s characters is to identify their respective narrative functions.
This may be a foreign concept to you. You may even bristle at the idea. Characters are supposed to be multilayered, flesh-and-blood individuals. How do I get there as a writer thinking about them in terms of function? This leads me to my second point:
Determining a character’s narrative function helps you to understand their core essence. Once you grasp what is at the foundation of a character’s being, then you can develop their entire psychological construct guided by that knowledge.
Take Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He is a vicious killer, nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” because his propensity is to eat his victims. If we just looked at Lecter from those surface details, we might be inclined to think that he is the story’s Nemesis character. But I would suggest that is not the case. In my view, Lecter’s narrative function is to provide key information in the movie’s serial killer case and force the Protagonist Clarice Starling to confront the seminal events of her past — her father’s murder, being orphaned, shipped off to her uncle’s farm in Montana, witnessing the spring slaughter of the lambs, trying to escape with one of the lambs — in order for her to find the courage to take on her real Nemesis character Buffalo Bill.
In other words, Lecter’s narrative function is Mentor, guiding Clarice through the Buffalo Bill case file and into her psychoanalytic ‘treatment’. The knowledge of Lecter’s core essence in relation to the Protagonist doubtless informed novelist Thomas Harris and screenwriter Ted Tally as they crafted his character.
My third point: In most movies, there are five main narrative functions at work, characterized by these primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Nemesis, Trickster. For example, here is the character archetype breakdown for The Silence of the Lambs:
Protagonist – Clarice Starling
Nemesis – Buffalo Bill
Attractor – Catherine Martin (kidnap victim)
Mentor – Hannibal Lecter
Trickster – Dr. Alex Chilton
I see these five character archetypes in movie after movie after movie. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that there may be an innate structure of Protagonist-Nemesis-Attractor-Mentor-Trickster akin to Aristotle’s idea of a story having a Beginning, Middle, and End and Joseph Campbell’s articulation of The Hero’s Journey.
In any event, a screenwriter is well-advised to develop and shape their characters with at least one eye on their respective narrative functions.
Note: In the book “The Silence of the Lambs,” Jack Crawford, the FBI official who assigns Clarice to interview Lecter, then brings her onto the Buffalo Bill case, is more of an Attractor character, intended to be a surrogate father figure. In the movie, Crawford’s role is cut down significantly from the script — which is cut down already quite a bit from the book — so that he comes off more as a Trickster.
To learn more about my theory of character archetypes, you can read these blog posts in which I analyze several movies from this perspective:
This week, I’ll be posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious.