Structure and Character - Excerpted with Permission from the Book "Story" - Part Two

Posted by Robert McKee on

Character Arc

Taking the principle further yet: The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.

In The Verdict, protagonist Frank Galvin first appears as a Boston attorney, dressed in a three-piece suit and looking like Paul Newman... unfairly handsome. David Mamet's screenplay then peels back this characterization to reveal a corrupt, bankrupt, self-destructive, irretrievable drunk who hasn't won a case for years. Divorce and disgrace have broken his spirit. We see him searching obituaries for people who have died in automobile or industrial accidents, then going to the funerals of these unfortunates to pass out his business card to grieving relatives, hoping to drum up some insurance litigation. This sequence culminates in a rage of drunken self-loathing as he trashes his office, rips the diplomas off the walls, and smashes them before collapsing in a heap. But then comes the case.

He's offered a medical malpractice suit to defend a woman lost in a coma. With a quick settlement, he'd make seventy thousand dollars. But as he looks at his client in her helpless state, he senses that what this case offers is not a fat, easy fee, but his last chance for salvation. He chooses to take on the Catholic Church and the political establishment, fighting not only for his client but for his own soul. With victory comes resurrection. The legal battle changes him into a sober, ethical, and excellent attorney - the kind of man he once was before he lost his will to live.

This is the play between character and structure seen throughout the history of fiction. First, the story lays out the protagonist's characterization: Home from the university for the funeral of his father, Hamlet is melancholy and confused, wishing he were dead: "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt... "

Second, we're soon led into the heart of the character. His true nature is revealed as he chooses to take one action over another: The ghost of Hamlet's father claims he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who has now become king. Hamlet's choices expose a highly intelligent and cautious nature battling to restrain his rash, passionate immaturity. He decides to seek revenge, but not until he can prove the King's guilt: "I will speak daggers ... but use none."

Third, this deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense that he is not what he appears to be. He's not merely sad, sensitive, and cautious. Other qualities wait hidden beneath his persona. Hamlet: "I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

Fourth, having exposed the character's inner nature, the story puts greater and greater pressure on him to make more and more difficult choices. Hamlet hunts for his father's killer and finds him on his knees in prayer. He could easily kill the King, but Hamlet realizes that if Claudius dies in prayer, his soul might go to heaven. So Hamlet forces himself to wait and kill Claudius when the King's soul is "as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes."

Fifth, by the climax of the story, these choices have profoundly changed the humanity of the character. Hamlet's wars, known and unknown, come to an end. He reaches a peaceful maturity as his lively intelligence ripens into wisdom: "The rest is silence."

Structure and Character Functions

The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self.
The function of CHARACTER is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. Put simply, a character must be credible: young enough or old enough, strong or weak, worldly or naive, educated or ignorant, generous or selfish, witty or dull, in the right proportions. Each must bring to the story the combination of qualities that allows an audience to believe that the character could and would do what he does.

Structure and character are interlocked. The event structure of a story is created out of the choices that characters make under pressure and the actions they choose to take, while characters are the creatures who are revealed and changed by how they choose to act under pressure. If you change one, you change the other. If you change event design, you have also changed character; if you change deep character, you must reinvent the structure to express the character's changed nature.

Suppose a story contains a pivotal event in which the protagonist, at serious risk, chooses to tell the truth. But the writer feels the first draft doesn't work. While studying this scene in the rewrite, he decides that his character would lie and changes his story design by reversing that action. From one draft to the next the protagonist's characterization remains intact - he dresses the same, works the same job, laughs at the same jokes. But in the first draft he's an honest man. In the second, a liar. With the inversion of an event the writer creates a wholly new character.

Suppose, on the other hand, the process takes this path: The writer has a sudden insight into his protagonist's nature, inspiring him to sketch out a radically new psychological profile, transforming an honest man into a liar. To express a wholly changed nature the writer will have to do far more than rework the character's traits. A dark sense of humor might add texture but would never be enough. If story stays the same, character stays the same. If the writer reinvents character, he must reinvent story. A changed character must make new choices, take different actions, and live another story - his story. Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place.

For this reason the phrase "character-driven story" is redundant. All stories are "character-driven." Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.


The relative complexity of character must be adjusted to genre. ACTION/ ADVENTURE and FARCE demand simplicity of character because complexity would distract us from the daring-do or pratfalls indispensable to those genres. Stories of personal and inner conflict, such as EDUCATION and REDEMPTION PLOTS, demand complexity of character because simplicity would rob us of the insight into human nature requisite to those genres. This is common sense. So what does "character-driven" really mean? For too many writers it means "characterization driven," tissue-thin portraiture in which the mask may be well drawn but deep character is left underdeveloped and unexpressed.

Climax and Character

The interlock of structure and character seems neatly symmetrical until we come to the problem of endings. A revered Hollywood axiom warns: "Movies are about their last 20 minutes." In other words, for a film to have a chance in the world, the last act and its climax must be the most satisfying experience of all. For no matter what the first ninety minutes have achieved, if the final movement fails, the film will die over its opening weekend.

Compare two films: For the first 80 minutes of Blind Date, Kim Basinger and Bruce Willis careened through this farce, exploding laugh after laugh. But with the Act Two climax, all laughter ceased, Act Three fell flat, and what should have been a hit went south. Kiss Of The Spider Woman, on the other hand, opened with a tedious 30 or 40 minutes, but gradually the film drew us into deep involvement and built pace until the Story Climax moved us as few dramas do. Audiences who were bored at eight o'clock were elated at ten o'clock. Word-of-mouth gave the film legs; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted William Hurt an Oscar.

Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time. Film, therefore, is temporal art, not plastic art. Our cousins are not the spacial media of painting, sculpture, architecture, or still photography, but the temporal forms of music, dance, poetry, and song. And the first commandment of all temporal art is: Thou shalt save the best for last. The final movement of a ballet, the coda of a symphony, the couplet of a sonnet, the last act and its Story Climax - these culminating moments must be the most gratifying, meaningful experiences of all.

A finished screenplay represents, obviously, 100 percent of its author's creative labor. The vast majority of this work, 75 percent or more of our struggles, goes into designing the interlock of deep character to the invention and arrangement of events. The writing of dialogue and description consumes what's left. And of the overwhelming effort that goes into designing story, 75 percent of that is focused on creating the climax of the last act. The story's ultimate event is the writer's ultimate task.

Gene Fowler once said that writing is easy, just a matter of staring at the blank page until your forehead bleeds. And if anything will draw blood from your forehead, it's creating the climax of the last act - the pinnacle and concentration of all meaning and emotion, the fulfillment for which all else is preparation, the decisive center of audience satisfaction. If this scene fails, the story fails. Until you have created it, you don't have a story. If you fail to make the poetic leap to a brilliant culminating climax, all previous scenes, characters, dialogue, and description become an elaborate typing exercise.

Suppose you were to wake up one morning with the inspiration to write this Story Climax: "Hero and villain pursue each other on foot for three days and three nights across the Mojave Desert. On the brink of dehydration, exhaustion, and delirium, a hundred miles from the nearest water, they fight it out and one kills the other." It's thrilling ... until you look back at your protagonist and remember that he's a seventy-five-year-old retired accountant, hobbled on crutches and allergic to dust. He'd turn your tragic climax into a joke. What's worse, your agent tells you Walter Matthau wants to play him as soon as you get the ending sorted out. What do you do?

Find the page where the protagonist is introduced, on it locate the phrase of description that reads "Jake (75)," then delete 7, insert 3. In other words, rework characterization. Deep character remains unchanged because whether Jake is 35 or 75, he still has the will and tenacity to go to the limit in the Mojave. But you must make him credible.

In 1924, Erich von Stroheim made Greed. Its climax plays out over three days and three nights, hero and villain, across the Mojave Desert. Von Stroheim shot this sequence in the Mojave in high summer with temperatures rising to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. He almost killed his cast and crew, but he got what he wanted: a white-on-white landscape of vast salt wastes extending to the horizon. Under the scorching sun, hero and villain, skin cracked and parched like the desert floor, grapple. In the struggle, the villain grabs a rock and smashes in the skull of the hero. But as the hero dies, in his last moment of consciousness, he manages to reach up and handcuff himself to his killer. In the final image the villain collapses in the dust, chained to the corpse he just killed.

Greed's brilliant ending is created out of ultimate choices that profoundly delineate its characters. Any aspect of characterization that undermines the credibility of such an action must be sacrificed. Plot, as Aristotle noted, is more important than characterization, but story structure and true character are one phenomenon seen from two points of view. The choices that characters make from behind their outer masks simultaneously shape their inner natures and propel the story. From Oedipus Rex to Falstaff, from Anna Karenina to Lord Jim, from Zorba the Greek to Thelma and Louise, this is the character/structure dynamic of consummate storytelling.

Read Part One of this excerpted chapter from Robert McKee's book Story here.

© Robert McKee. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Excerpted from Robert McKee's STORY: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

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