11 April 2013

The importance of having engaging characters

I regard the two Star Wars trilogies like many other fans: great original films, disappointing prequels. Until this week I'd never thought much about why that is, beyond the obvious facts that Episode I's political story is tedious and the vast majority of its acting is wooden.

This time last year a comprehensive review of Episode I: The Phantom Menace appeared on YouTube courtesy of RedLetterMedia. It is delivered alongside crude comedy and regular swearing but it also (unexpectedly) offers sound film making advice.

Amateur writers and film makers are often told that the audience needs to engage with a character, but this has never been so clearly demonstrated to me as in this video review of The Phantom Menace. I heartily recommend everyone watch at least the first instalment of the review, and if you can get past the crude humour I hope it helps this concept click with you as it did with me.

At 2:15 it's explained how the audience needs to engage with at least one character. We see how Episode I fails due to a lack of an "everyman" character, along with some plot oddities.

At 6:50 some friends are asked to describe characters from the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. As you might expect they perceived Han Solo and C-3PO as fairly complex, fully-formed personalities and Qui-Gon Jinn and Queen Amidala as flat and monotonous.

The remainder of the review (it is split into 7 parts running at over an hour) also competently explains how other elements of Episode I put barriers in the viewers' path to appreciating the film, and in some cases the method of producing the film against blue screens made it difficult for the actors to interact convincingly with their surroundings.

All these problems contribute to making it a less-than-enjoyable film, but I see now that engagement with the characters is the viewers' gateway to the world within the film. By identifying with an "everyman" character (such as Luke Skywalker) the viewer can see the film's world through their eyes.

How it works in other films

In the couple of weeks since I started appreciating these concepts I've been looking at characters in films and TV programmes. What is interesting is that the viewer might identify with different characters at different points in the film, such as in Amadeus where the viewer may initially sympathise with Salieri's bemusement, and then later with Mozart as pressures pile upon him and Salieri's tricks become more underhand. I also see that these rules need not apply to short films, as patience with less fleshed-out characters (in a similar way to suspension of disbelief) could last through a 5-minute film without any help from the characters.

There's no doubt that making a new Star Wars film has many challenges, but it shows how even seasoned professionals supposedly at the height of their game can make mistakes. Perhaps the lack of engaging characters was a key reason that audiences found the prequels disappointing. Hopefully novices like myself can learn these lessons and find an insight into what makes a great story and perhaps a great film.

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