How Many Characters?

Very Limited Scopes)

I’ve always been interested in movies with a limited cast of characters. Take, for example, the 2013 film Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The entire film takes place in a man’s car as he makes a long drive. Along the way he has a number of intense phone conversations, all dealing with a life-changing situation that has just come up. Obviously there are other characters involved at the opposite end of those calls, but it is very much a one-man show.

Then there’s Gravity, also from 2013, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts carrying out a mission in space. A sweeping cloud of debris takes out their entire crew, leaving them as the lone survivors, desperately looking for a way back into the atmosphere before the cloud of debris circles the earth and comes for another pass. George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it further then the first act, and so we are left with one singular character again.

Another example would be All is Lost, which, wouldn’t you know it, was also from the year 2013! In this film Robert Redford’s character is alone at sea when his yacht floods, leaving him stranded in the middle of the ocean on an inflatable raft. Not only is the entire film limited to the perspective of this singular character struggling to survive, he also happens to be a particularly silent character. There are almost no words spoken at all throughout the movie.

You might wonder how any film could work with such a limited set of characters. But for how limited they might seem, each of these movies provides a compelling narrative, significant character development, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas. This claim might seem less preposterous when you realize that while most films do have more than just one or two main characters, they usually max out at three or four.

Fewer Faces Than You Realize)

Just last week I finished watching Casablanca, one of the most beloved films of all time. Much of the film takes place in a bustling club, with dozens of characters filing in and out, ordering drinks, gambling at the roulette wheel, and selling contraband. But what stood out to me most as I watched this movie was how almost all of these characters are little more than set dressing, used to establish the mood of the film, but having no meaningful contribution to the central arc.

At the heart of this film there are really only three characters: Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Captain Renault. These are the only characters who ever show any development, the only ones with shifting feelings and objectives, and the only ones who change each other over time.

At the beginning of the film Rick is a disillusioned cynic, trying to hide from the life of passion he once led before his heart was crushed by Ilsa Lund. Captain Renault is somewhat similar to Rick, though he hides his true self behind a mask of careless joviality. Then Ilsa arrives on the scene, arm-in-arm with another man, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to confront his old wounds and he and Ilsa exchange a few heated barbs.

But those insults only prove that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Rick finds himself slowly thawed by the shadow of the love he once held, first into bitter anger, but then into something more pure. By a series of events finds himself in possession of all that he needs to remove Victor Laszlo, clearing the way for him and Ilsa to run away together.

But now that he has awoken to love he has also awoken to his old sense of honor and dignity. And so he sacrifices himself to save Ilsa and Victor, arranging for them to leave the city together. He says goodbye to the woman he cares for, though this time on his own terms, and this honest departure allows the love to remain between them.

But then comes the complication with Captain Renault. For saving Ilsa and Victor required Rick to cross his old friend. He doesn’t want to kill Renault, but he must use him against his will for a moment, after which he promises to turn himself over to Renault’s superios and face all of the consequences that come. But when the moment comes for Captain Renault to exact his revenge he doesn’t. Like Rick, he sees the opportunity to finally redeem himself and he takes it. As they walk off Rick announces that he believes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And that’s it. Three characters and no more. I would even say it is really only two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, with Captain Renault only being a supporting player until the very final act.

Aren’t You Forgetting Something?)

But you might ask what about Victor Laszlo? Or Major Strasser, the villain who weaves the very trap around Laszlo and Ilsa which Rick must deliver them from? I maintain that these are supporting characters only. They are entirely single-dimensional. Each is a single, unyielding force in opposite directions that the main characters then pivot and weave around. They are present only to make the actual drama possible, they do not actually play in the game themselves.

And everyone else you see in the movie? Set dressing. They are there to set the tone, to provide flavor and humor, and even just to distract you from the fact this story is really only about a very few people.

And that’s alright. Because as it turns out, writing a story for central characters becomes exponentially more difficult for each one that is added to the plot. When too many faces are forced into the center some of them are usually left half-baked or else everything is too muddled to make any sense of. It is always better to write a story of a few characters well and dress it up nicely, than to overcomplicate a story to its own demise.

And that is going to be one of my guiding principles in my new story: Covalent. Last Wednesday I introduced a single character, and in his thoughts I made mention to two others. And that’s it. That is going to be the entire central cast for the entire rest of the story. Yes, there will be other creatures and entities that lurk about, but all the central plot is going to be focused on the interplay of these three key players. Come back on Wednesday to see what I mean.

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