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.
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