Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Character Relationships 2 - Ties that bind

As a kid, I loved Goldfinger (even before I finally saw the movie when it was on TV, years after its release). Gadgets. Sophistication. Sean Connery!

The story itself includes tension that escalates. It's like an obstacle course designed by an evil genius. But the relationship between Bond and Goldfinger never develops. They could have had this exchange dozens of times during the movie:

James Bond - Do you expect me to talk?
Auric Goldfinger - No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

The scene does include a surprise and a power shift, but Goldfinger stays evil. Bond opposes him. Again and again.

Fun is fun, but I prefer stories where relationships shift and deepen, where there are unexpected betrayals, and where characters get to know each other's secrets. I like character arcs to be intertwined, for the benign to become malevolent (and vice versa), and for the protagonist change to be forced by the antagonist's constant probing of his or her flaw. (Ouch!)

Shift and deepen - This happens in many good buddy movies and love stories. In Pretty Woman, Vivian and Edward have a purely financial arrangement. Circumstances push the relationship from behind closed doors to public, social situations, and finally to love. Both characters rub against old wounds and become more compassionate and humane. Looking at the character arcs, they are expertly intertwined, with each of them becoming closer and further apart on the path toward their joint destiny. (And both have symbolic sacrifices -- a kiss on the lips for her and braving heights for him.)

The key to a relationship that shifts and deepens is making sure no one can walk away. Why? Because those painful matters need to really hurt -- enough so there will be a desire to abandon the other person. It is people who are linked together AND weather the worst who truly end up with personal connections that touch your heart (and the hearts of readers and audiences).

Betrayal - A few rules on really good betrayals. 1) The positive relationship has to be established. You can't betray someone with whom you don't have a solid bond. (The best way to do this is to borrow from Shift and Deepen and not create love or friendship at first sight. A tested relationship is convincing and authentic.) 2) There has to be a really good reason for the betrayal. It has to matter. It's nice if the person betraying the protagonist finds acting like a rat painful. 3) The reason should be foreshadowed in some way. 4) The betrayal has to have all the main characters in the scene. It is important that the twist of the knife is vivid and personal.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dr. Elsa Schneider is the natural heroine. She even sleeps with Indy (and his dad) before being revealed as a traitorous Nazi. (Ach!)

Flaws - In Silence of the Lambs, does Hannibal see Clarice as anything but a diversion, possibly an opportunity? I think he does. He probes her continuously, forcing her to be a better agent, but also to deal with the traumas of her life, the very things undercutting her confidence and holding her back. Buffalo Bill may push the plot along, but it is the relationship, built around Clarice's flaws, that powers both the movie and the book.

Even one scene can add power to a story. In It's a Wonderful Life, Potter is mostly a stock villain. His finest moment is when, rather that opposing George Bailey, he tries to entice him into a partnership. Uncle Billy losing the money and Potter hanging onto it may create the crisis, but the most memorable scene for me is when George accepts Potter's cigar.

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