Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Makes a Great Protagonist? (Case study: Jake Gittes)

(Yes, amazing, she’s actually doing a post on character!)

In the middle of this CHINATOWN story breakdown and analysis it has struck me that the character of Jake Gittes is a virtual textbook all on his own on techniques of creating a great character. So I wanted to do a dedicated post on all – well, some - of the character techniques that went into Jake Gittes that helped create a tragic and iconic detective for the ages.

First, they got Jack Nicholson to play Jake.

(Do that and your work is done, right?)

But that casting was no accident. Robert Towne wrote the part specifically for Jack Nicholson, who was NOT a star at the time, although he was rising. Towne used Nicholson’s voice, his mannerisms, his attitude, to develop a colorful, complicated fully-realized lead.

I’ve talked before about writing a character for a specific actor. And as authors, we can use this technique even more easily than screenwriters can - because we don’t have to go out and get the actor to play the part (and then compromise later with the ninth choice on our wish list). We can write any actor we please into any part we choose. So why not take advantage of that happy position of unlimited power?

Reread THE FIRM and tell me Grisham didn’t write that character for Tom Cruise (at the age he was when the book came out). Then look at Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF – Darby IS Julia Roberts, right? This writing-for-actors technique works, not just to create bestselling novels, but also to help you nail your intended actors when the book is made into a movie. (In fact Nicholson not only signed on to play the role, according to Polanski himself, Nicholson was instrumental in getting Polanski to agree to direct. That’s what happens when a smart actor has a vested interest in getting a movie made).

So there’s one major technique right there – Write for a specific actor.

But what else went into the creation of Jake Gittes?

Now, when you’re writing a detective as your main character, whether that detective is a cop, a PI like Jake, or an amateur, a lot of your choices are already made for you. You know there’s going to be a mystery, or a murder, or another crime - or a combination of all three of those things, and that the detective’s outer desire is going to be to solve that crime or mystery (and usually also to avoid being killed by the person s/he is pursuing). The incredible advantage of having all those choices already built in to a character probably has a lot to do with why so many authors and screenwriters choose to write in this genre.

The downside is that detectives have been done so often that it can be hard to do anything unique with the character.

Robert Towne hits a lot of classic points with Jake. I’d like to take them one by one.

1. Jake is a hero with a GHOST, or WOUND:

He used to be a cop working in L.A.’s Chinatown, where nothing was as it seemed and where Jake’s best efforts to help a woman ended up with her getting hurt instead. Though we never learn the details of the incident, apparently it was bad enough that Jake quit the police force and now is wasting his talents on divorce work. And the case he is about to take on will take him metaphorically and physically right back into Chinatown. He will be forced to relive his haunted past.

(And that recreation and reliving of a past trauma is a staple of drama for a reason: a lot of psychologists would say that that's the human condition, the "repetition compulsion": we all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma (s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.)

2. CHINATOWN is a “Hero Falls” story.

When we meet him, Jake seems on the surface to be doing pretty well. Whatever happened in Chinatown, it doesn’t seem to consume him. His business is good, he’s making good money, he’s not a broken down alcoholic or basket case, he keeps a sense of humor about things. But there’s a good reason the filmmakers start Jake on a fairly even keel.

For any story you write, there are certain big arcs that most characters fall into. One is a hero/ine who starts the story in emotional trouble if not actual physical trouble (generally brought on the emotional problem!), who takes the journey of the story, is forced to confront her or his deficiencies, overcomes them, and triumphs - to win a goal that was probably not the goal s/he started out with, but is clearly what s/he really needed all along. (This is the most common character arc).

A second pattern is an innocent hero/ine who triumphs over evil and opposition and wins her/his goal through sheer goodness. (THE WIZARD OF OZ and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE are good examples). The heroine and hero in those stories don’t have huge character arcs (although both characters gain in personal strength); the lesson for us (the reader or audience) is a more general one of how virtue and passion and doing the right thing are rewarded (and hopefully we the reader or audience are inspired by the story to be virtuous ourselves.).

A third pattern, though, is a hero who fails or falls. THE GODFATHER shows the moral fall of Michael Corleone (even as he rises in societal stature). CHINATOWN shows the fall of Jake Gittes, despite his sincere and determined attempts to do the right thing. While Michael Corleone makes the choices he makes deliberately (although the pressure of family history weighs heavily); Jake is a pawn, up against the greater forces of a malevolent universe. The only thing Jake learns in CHINATOWN is that his best efforts are useless; he should have learned his lesson long ago that the only way to survive is to do “as little as possible.”

So CHINATOWN begins with a protagonist who we come to understand is wounded, but doing better, and the mystery that presents itself to him as the case seems to offer a chance for Jake’s complete redemption (and the chance of love). The uniqueness of CHINATOWN, of course, and the reason it would not be made as a film today, is that the case that Jake (unconsciously) and we (consciously) hoped would redeem him destroys him instead.

This was a bold choice of the filmmakers (and it was not Towne’s original intention; it was Polanski who pushed for the tragic ending), and sets the story far apart from most Hollywood offerings; one might say it out-noirs most noir as well.

But there are other, more subtle techniques going on here to define Jake.

There is a character who is the protagonist’s mirror

A lot of Jake’s BACKSTORY, GHOST, INNER and OUTER DESIRE are dramatized through the character of Lt. Escobar. Escobar is Jake’s mirror – the man he could have been, in the position Jake could have been in now, had he stayed on the police force instead of quitting to go into private investigations. Escobar got out of Chinatown without quitting the force, and rose from there. When Jake is with Escobar we see Jake’s regret about quitting, his longing to be doing real police work (inner desire). Escobar is a character serves as both an antagonist, sometimes (actually dramatizing Jake’s internal opposition) and an ally. It’s terrific storytelling that Jake’s backstory is dramatized, brought to life with this character from his past.

The character’s inner and outer desires are in conflict

On the surface, Jake wants to do his not very taxing work, make money, and live the good life – doing, as he later says, “as little as possible.” This seems to mean he wants it easy, but we will find that he adopted this philosophy when doing his best to help someone resulted in tragedy.

Jake’s inner desire becomes more and more clear as the story progresses. From the beginning of his investigation of Mulwray, we see that Jake is both a very good investigator and a very passionate detective – he loves doing the work of uncovering a mystery, and his interactions with Escobar make us realize that he loved and misses police work. But even more – and he says this aloud – he wants to help people. He says to Evelyn that he wants to help her husband; after her husband dies he wants to help Evelyn, and when he finds out about Katherine he wants to help both women. So his inner desire is to use his substantial detective skills to help people.

So two great techniques going on there:

- Give us a character with inner and outer desires in conflict and let us see the inner desire start to triumph, and

- Dramatize the hero/ine’s inner desire – and have him or her state it aloud.

There are two characters who represent the hero’s good and bad angels, or two contrasting sides of his personality.

We see two conflicting sides of Jake in the dialogue and in Nicholson’s performance – he can be smart, sophisticated and charming; but he’s also crass, earthy and inappropriate. He’ll make an astute observation (like telling Evelyn that in his “métier” he doesn’t come across people who say they’re relieved to find out their spouse is cheating unless they themselves are cheating…) and then he turns around and undercuts it with a crude remark (he tells her that she changed her mind “quicker than wind out of a duck’s ass”)

These two different and often conflicting sides of Jake’s personality are physically represented by Walsh and Duffy, Jake’s operatives. Walsh is the serious, perceptive operative, focused to the point of being nerdy, and emotionally insightful and compassionate (he knows when to shut up and listen, he is the one who tries to comfort Jake in the final moments of the movie). Duffy is big, loud, crassly charming, and focused on sex and money – another side of Jake’s personality.

This is an easy technique to use and massively effective in developing both character and overall theme: you can see it in operation in Star Wars (Luke is a combination of the intellect of Ben Kenobi and the derring-do of Han Solo), and Star Trek (James Kirk is constantly having to balance the emotional id advice of Bones McCoy and the cold, rational superego advice of Spock).

There is a character who is the protagonist’s doppelganger.

Part of the eerie power of CHINATOWN is the relationship between Jake Gittes and Hollis Mulwray: the man he is initially hired to follow and whom he never actually meets. But Jake doesn’t just follow in Mulwray’s footsteps while on the case; he actually takes the same journey that Mulwray does: both investigating the water scam that’s going on and trying to help Evelyn and her daughter/sister. And both men are equally doomed. It’s a mesmerizing and haunting technique that gives this film a mythic resonance, and makes Jake more than just an ordinary hero, but a tragic figure.

The storytellers give the protagonist clever “business”.

There are scenes throughout the film that are deliberately designed to show how clever Jake is as a detective – some of the most memorable bits in the movie. Jake places a watch under the tire of Mulwray’s car to record what time Mulwray leaves the water pipe. He takes business cards from Yelburton, the Deputy Chief of the Water Department, and uses the card later to gain access to a crime scene at the reservoir. He understands instantly that something is fishy about a drunk drowning in the bone-dry L.A. River bed. He delights in torturing Yelburton’s secretary with his whistling and humming and wandering around the office and relentless questions until she caves and lets him in to see Yelburton. He steals the page he needs from a map in the Hall of Records by borrowing a ruler from the snippy clerk and then laying the ruler across the page and coughing to cover the sound of the page tearing. These often comic scenes are endearing and also make us admire and empathize with Jake. It’s a good idea to start becoming aware of how actors and filmmakers and novelists build character through this kind of business, and then ask yourself what kinds of scenes you could give your own protagonist to let his or her personality shine through.

The character goes to extremes

Another character trait that makes Jake unique is that he will not give up, even to the point of absurdity. For half the movie he has an enormous bandage plastered on his nose because it was cut by one of the goons working for the Water Department. You rarely see a protagonist in a thriller or drama looking like such a buffoon, but valiantly continuing the case in spite of it all, and it certainly sets Jake apart from most heroes.

The character has archetypal or mythic resonance.

And of course it helps that Jake Gittes is deliberately based on one of the all-time classic protagonists of world literature. Not that he has a lot in common with Oedipus, really, but even the slight resonance with Oedipus’s tragic blindness to his own culpability, and the deliberate references to the very first detective story, goes a long way toward making Jake a haunting character.

In the climax, the protagonist must confront his greatest nightmare

This is a very important point: in the climax of CHINATOWN, Jake finds himself (actually deliberately drives himself) right back into the same situation that almost crushed in him in his past. The climax externalizes Jake's GHOST, or WOUND: he is in Chinatown again, a wonderful, seedy, ominous visual, and he's trying to save another woman, two of them this time, when the last time all his best efforts to save a woman in Chinatown resulted in her getting hurt (in some way that was awful enough that he quit the police force). The lesson here is - spend some quality time figuring out how to bring your hero/ine's greatest nightmare to life: in setting, set decoration, characters involved, actions taken. If you know your hero/ine's ghost and greatest fear, then you should be able to come up with a great setting that will be unique, resonant, and entirely specific to that protagonist (and often to the villain as well.)

So what I hope you get from this post is a glimpse of how breaking down what techniques go into creating a specific character can teach you some tricks to use for your own characters.

I bet you can guess my next suggestion and blog, too. Make a list of YOUR top ten hero/ines, some from films, some from books, like we did with villains, here: What Makes a Great Villain?, and let’s take a look at what turns you on in a protagonist.

- Alex


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Stephen D. Rogers said...

I like flawed protags. Not just because of their past, but because they're flawed in the present.

The Terminator in TERMINATOR 2 is not quite up to defeating the T1000. He's weary and he has to learn throughout the movie.

The Bruce Willis character in DIE HARD is acting throughout most of the movie without ever really knowing what's happening.

In EMMA, Emma misreads situations and hits a wrong social note at a picnic, although she is always trying to do the right thing.

Patrick Genzie in GONE BABY GONE (the movie at least, I don't remember the book) doesn't really know what's going on through most of the movie. His belief about what is going on is colored by his world view.

Jake in CHINA TOWN also misreads the situation based on his view of the world.

In my WIP, my protag is given the answer halfway through the book but is desperately believes something else is happening because it meshes with his inner desire.

Holly Y said...

In movies: Willow (small person saves the baby and saves the world), Spiderman (ultimate misunderstood teen), and the little bushman in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

In books: Eowyn from LotR (she slays the king of the night riders single handedly), Gustine in The Dress Lodger (hardworking and feisty to save her baby) and Gordianus the Finder in Steven Saylor's Rome mysteries.

I prefer protags who are not so much flawed as vulnerable. From this list I can also see a theme of babies and children. :/

I don't care for Oedipus. He's the king for goodness sake, and strong and everything. So he falls, big deal. For me the more interesting character is Jocasta because she is so vulnerable. She even tries to make Oedipus stop the inquiry. She is in the weakest position because the loves of spouse and child, and desire to protect come into direct conflict.

This, to me, makes a more interesting tale than the fall of someone already at the top.

So I'm thinking you'd suggest I'd create those kind of characters, eh?

Gayle Carline said...

I may have to think about why I like these hero/ines, but here's my list:
1. Sherlock Holmes (the books, altho Basil Rathbone brings such fond memories)
2. Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep - book and Bogie version)
3. Eve Diamond (Denise Hamilton mysteries)
4. Flynn Carsen (The Librarian movies)
5. Rick O'Connell (The Mummy)
6. Ripley (Alien)
7. Nick and Nora Charles
8. Brenda Lee Johnson (The Closer)
9. Ziva David (NCIS)
10. Allison DuBois (Medium)


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, Stephen, I think that's fascinating - you named mostly protags that are not just flawed, but specifically flawed in their apprehension of their situations. That's quite a pattern you've got going there, and you're using it in an interesting way in your own work.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LOL, Holly, yes, you know how this goes by now!

Again, very clear and interesting pattern - babies, children, even little people!

I love reading people's lists!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, Gayle, almost exclusively detectives, and most of them, thought not all, pretty hardboiled.

But I'd like to hear what YOU like about each.

What are the Librarian movies? And how come I don't know about them?

Gayle Carline said...

I was going to leave a long comment about why I liked those specific characters, but I ended up blogging about it instead. You can read more details at http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com.

Basically, I think I like my hero/ines smart, funny, and fearless. And The Librarian movies were made by TNT, starring Noah Wyle.

Paul D Brazill said...

Thanks for this stuff. We did Chinatown as part of my, mostly useless, screenwiting course many years ago but not with as much insight as this.Cheers.

laughingwolf said...

great examination of a superb role and film, thank you....

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, great breakdown! Nick and Nora are two of my absolute favorites, too.

You know, I never questioned why someone like Holmes would be an addict. Someone that classically OCD and paranoid - I mean, hyper-vigilant - would pretty naturally turn to drugs just to disconnect from his own racing brain.

You know Ripley was a man in the original ALIEN script, right? And Sigourney Weaver wanted to play the part without any rewrites, which is how they did it (except of course for the sexual chemistry with the officer whose name escapes me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you, Paul and LaughingWolf!

DebbyJ said...

I think my all time favorite movie protagonist is Thomas Crown. Not the watered down Pierce Brosnan version of Crown, but the original with Steve McQueen. I know that part of the reason is the performance of Steve McQueen—flawless and as cool as the condensation off a dry martini.

That version of Thomas Crown has many of the points you covered with the character of Jake Gittes. To some degree you could say that Crown is a hero with a ghost. There are several mentions of an ex-wife, the most telling being that she hated the beach and therefore didn’t like the beach house he was building and clearly loved.

Crown also has a character who mirrors him—the female insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway). They give new meaning to two peas in a pod.

The storyteller definitely makes Crown a clever character who goes to extremes.

Mostly though, Crown is protagonist in conflict with his inner and outer desires. And the thing that makes the original movie, at least for me, far superior to the remake, is that the story allows Thomas to give in to those desires in such a way that, like the Faye Dunaway character, we’re left crushed and confused by his final choice, one we should have known he’d make all along because it was coming at us throughout the whole movie like a freight train.

The original Thomas Crown Affair rocks. A great story. Wonderful actors. And a super terrific ending that got totally screwed in the remake.

Jolie said...

It's amazing how many of these points you internalize when you absorb enough books/movies. I'm already using a lot of these techniques in the brainstorming of my novel, without really thinking about them. It helps to have someone name and analyze them, so thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, it's been ages since I saw Thomas Crowne, and now I HAVE to. Thanks, Debby, what a great rundown!

Anonymous said...

That's great that you're already doing it, Jolie. I have to remind myself of all this stuff every single time I start a new project. I get some of it, but it just somehow helps me to go down the list and ask, "Could I do more of that?"

Anonymous said...

I love all of Dick Francis' heroes, but most specifically one of the ones he's chosen to repeat, Sid Halley. Sid is born out-of-wedlock into semi-poverty, raised by a single mother who, when she finds out she's dying, basically chooses his profession (racing) for him. Sid learns to define himself in terms of his profession, becoming a champion jockey, but when an accident destroys one of his hands and takes him out of racing, he's forced to learn to redefine himself, and revalue his existence.

Karen from Mentor said...

Would it break your heart if you wrote a GREAT character with a specific actor in mind but for some reason he/she couldn't play the part...And they hired someone "of the moment" to play your hero. Which would be worse, if it failed or was a blockbuster?
Loved the post!
Karen from Mentor

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Karen, absolutely not, it wouldn't break my heart if I didn't get the actor I was envisioning. You have to remember that I come from theater, and I know perfectly well it's always a total roll of the dice who shows up for an audition.

Whatever you're thinking about for a character when you're writing a piece, you have to let ALL of that go when production starts. And sometimes the least likely actor is the best possible person to make your script come alive. I love what happens when actors get involved. We writers can only take things so far... we can't possibly live all the characters the way that good actors will do. We do our job, and then we have to step back and let them do theirs. That's the way it's supposed to be

You never get the PERFECT actor any more than you ever write the perfect book or script, right,?

I mean, let's be reasonable, after all. There is often magic. There is never perfection.

And believe me, I'm not saying that disaster doesn't happen, sometimes, and the worst possible person for the role gets cast, and your movie or play crashes and burns like the Hindenburg. Life isn't fair.

But there is magic in theater and film, and we all always have to hope for and expect the magic. Much more often than not, magic is exactly what will happen.

Fabulous question, btw - I hope I did it justice.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Alex, I completely agree with you on the whole character/actor thing. I really had my doubts when I heard that Casey Affleck was going to play Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone. I have to admit though, I was pleasantly surprised.

Karen from Mentor said...

I'm really glad to hear you say that. Writing for me is organic. I love to watch my characters grow to the point that I just have to get out of the way. It's a lovely idea to finish a story and let what happens happen. It's similar to launching a child into the world and trusting them to live the life they need to live.
Your response was beautiful.

Karen Schindler

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I think it would be interesting to compare and contrast Jake Gittes from CHINATOWN to Jake Gittes from THE TWO JAKES. Same actor, same character, same writer. And yet....

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I have to say I don't remember ANYTHING about TWO JAKES. I think I'd want to read it before I saw it again.

I recently read that there was a third movie planned to complete a CHINATOWN trilogy, but it got shelved when TWO JAKES didn't do well at the box office.

It's about the building of the So Cal Cloverleaf, the freeway interchange, so I've got to get hold of it just for Towne's take on the history!

Car Covers said...

I'm very glad to know that you say . Producing for me personally is not organic. I really like to watch my characters grow into the idea that I just have to acquire out of the way. It really is really a lovely concept to finish a narrative and let what happens happen. It's similar to starting a child into the world and trusting them to stay the entire life that they need to reside. Car Covers