Another, unwritten “rule” of screenwriting and character development is that a character should change during the course of their story. They should learn something on their journey that makes them a different and/or better person. Starting in the status quo of their current lives, something happens that throws them into their new world and makes them reappraise the situation they were in and the beliefs they held.
Taking one of my favourite examples, It’s Wonderful Life, we see George Bailey go through a lot of trials, hankering to get away from Bedford Falls, a place that he has seen as a weight around his neck since childhood. Everything conspires against him in the story, to the point that he reaches a very low point; penniless, hating himself and, sadly, even resenting his own family. Through a mysterious stranger George is given the opportunity to reflect on his life and literally see what the world would have been like without him. He learns a lot about himself, his family and friends, finally realising that he is, in fact, the richest man in Bedford Falls despite thinking he has nothing. His WANT – to leave Bedford Falls and make his fortune is replaced with the realisation of his NEED – to stay in Bedford Falls where he already has everything he will ever need. Although George is an all round good guy, he does undergo some change during the film as he makes this realisation.
But, do characters have to change?
Of course not!
It wouldn’t be a screenwriting “rule” if we didn’t encourage each other to break it. Many would argue, for example, that Ripley doesn’t change at all during Alien – she’s a kick-ass character all the way through. In fact, some characters are more about the change and effect they have on the people around them in the story. Check out Forrest Gump for an example of that.
The reason for posting this is because I recently caught up with Nightcrawler. I enjoyed the film, but I wasn’t “blown away” as I was led to believe I would be. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job with Louis Bloom, a man of questionable morals who lies, fights and kills to get to the top. Ultimately, I just didn’t really like the character and, at the end of the film felt that he hadn’t learned anything on his journey – he was just as amoral at the end of the film as he was at the start. He may actually have been worse.
However, the film, like Bloom, has a way of getting under your skin in the days after watching it – which was probably the point. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this is more like Forrest Gump than It’s a Wonderful Life. It is more about the effect Bloom has on those around him; most notably TV Exec, Nina and Rick, his ill-fated assistant. Their desire to “get on” are probably matched by Louis’ but their characters are corrupted (further?) by getting involved with Louis and his slightly twisted view on the world. Nina’s slightly dodgy ethics worsen in her desire to get bigger and better videos for her station and Rick’s desire to help and be successful are his downfall when partnered with Louis’ desire to get the “shot” regardless of the cost.
That’s when I started to realise that Nighcrawler wasn’t really Louis’ story – it is Nina’s and Rick’s – as an exploration of the effects of corruption. Louis is like a physical force blowing through the film; an amoral tornado tainting everything it touches.
Like the feeling when you have been up all night, Nightcrawler seeps in unexpectedly, taking you by surprise (much like Louis’ introduction in the film) and, like the announcements on his police scanner, takes you by surprise, just when you think you have figured it out.
Any film that makes me think for more than a few hours after the event is more than worth a look, and I am sure it would stand up to repeated viewing. It certainly grew on me. Definitely recommended as an exploration of character and the perfect example of a protagonist who doesn’t change.
Just because a character doesn’t change, doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting.
Do you think all characters should change?
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment below!