4. How Are the Characters Portrayed? – Exploring Movie Construction and Production

Jan 7, 2022 12:46 PM
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Dictionary.com defines character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing, including moral or ethical quality, reputation, and the qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity.”30

The portrayal of a character in a movie can also be phrased by the formula: Dialogue + Physical Movement = Character.

This leads us to the main ingredient of a movie and why we watch movies: the characters. Identifying with the characters is a common reason people love a certain movie. The viewer wants to see the main character (protagonist) and the supporting characters develop like people do in real life.

In order for the movie to express this development, the character has to show growth in moral and ethical qualities, such as integrity, honesty, or courage, and by having a well-developed background, making the character three-dimensional.

In order to create a three-dimensional character with a well-developed background, the movie has to illustrate the character’s sociology, psychology, and physiology. Since a movie is a visual experience, the sociology and psychology, along with the physiology, are subtly portrayed visually by the physical movements and the dialogue the character displays in any particular situation. Physiology is included in this portrayal because many movie characters are self-conscious of their physical appearances, like Cyrano de Bergerac who was self-conscious of his nose.

The physical actions and the dialogue of the character change from the exposition and conflict as he or she goes through the rising and falling action of the movie. Every shot or frame of a film has to count in order to accomplish the action and progress the story. In addition, the dialogue in these situations has to agree with the physical movements. For instance, the dialogue cannot be a ranting and raving of a particular situation while the character is standing calmly, looking out a window.

Let’s draw upon the characters from Detour, Cyrano de Bergerac, and the hypothetical example, Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery, to see how character is or could be expressed. These examples will provide a good analysis of a character. What the character’s mannerisms, movements, and dialogue are reveals aspects of the individual’s personality and background and what actions will occur regarding the handling of the movie’s conflict.

Character Physiology

The main physiology points of a character are the sex, age, height, weight, posture, appearance, defects, and heredity. A character’s voice should also be part of the physiology because different parts of a person’s anatomy, such as vocal folds (cords), throat, mouth cavity, nasal passages, the tongue, soft palate, and lips,31 create sound.


Regarding a character’s physiology, the most important and influential part of the movie, Cyrano de Bergerac, is based on Cyrano’s nose.

In Cyrano de Bergerac, the most prominent physiological characteristic is, obviously, Cyrano’s nose. His nose affects both his physical and verbal actions. Would Cyrano de Bergerac have been involved in so many sword fights if his nose was of normal size? Considering his attitude, he might have, but overall probably not. Other characters in the movie that did not have such a pronounced nose were not involved in as many altercations as Cyrano.

Besides sword fighting, he is egotistical in the areas of writing and acting, which compensate for his large nose. The size of his nose affects his actions in life such as his love toward Roxane. Instead of expressing his love for Roxane near the beginning of the movie, he lives vicariously through Christian.


The look of a character’s physiology, such as a close-up of a character’s face, lends toward the mood or atmosphere of a scene. Seeing his dirty, unshaven face and furrowed forehead, the viewer can see the worry in Al Roberts’ demeanor.

In Detour, actions that occur to Al Roberts slowly wear his body down to the point that exhaustion is evident in his physiology. Being a nightclub singer, Al’s voice has to sound pleasing.

In the hypothetical example, Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery, since it is not an actual movie, how would Jack physically appear? From the above list, you can see some of the obvious physiological characteristics for Jack. He is a young male, since he just graduated from college. Throughout the movie, he does not age much as the movie takes place within several months or a year at the most. Most of the other areas, such as voice, height, weight, posture, appearance, defects, and heredity, do not play a significant role for the character Jack, like Cyrano’s nose. The rest of his physiology can be nondescript.

Character Psychology

The main psychological points of a character are moral standards, personal premise, ambition, frustrations, chief disappointments, temperament, attitude toward life, complexes, extroversion, introversion; ambivalence, abilities, character qualities, and IQ. These psychological points form the background of a character and determine logically how he or she is going to act at the beginning of the movie, during the rising action of the conflict, and in the final action at the climax of the movie. Even though some of the psychological traits are not shown at the beginning of the movie, these traits are brought out by the conflict that arises and the situations that occur during the rising action of the movie.

In Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano is frustrated by his belief that he is not desirable to Roxane because of his nose. This frustration is fueled throughout the movie, and it results in a temperament whereby he ridicules other people, such as he did the actor at the beginning of the movie. Cyrano’s chief disappointment is that he never tells Roxane he loves her.

Cyrano is an ambivert. He is an extrovert to everyone except for Roxane. To Roxane, he is an introvert, because he keeps everything inside and does not pronounce his true love to her.

In Detour, Al Roberts’ attitude toward life at the beginning of the movie is that he is satisfied playing piano in a nightclub and marrying Sue, the singer in the nightclub. Al’s attitude toward life changes after he accidentally kills two people. He is frustrated and quick tempered by these two deaths, resulting in a changed attitude toward life.

In Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery, Jack has ambition as he wants to develop a career on his own. This becomes Jack’s main attitude toward life. At the beginning of the movie, though, he has a temperament of frustration, because his family has planned his whole life up to the point of his graduation from college. What else would you add to the psychology of Jack?

Character Sociology

The main sociological points of a character are economic class, occupation, education, home life, religion, race, nationality, position in the community, political affiliation, amusements, and hobbies. Depending upon the story of the movie, the sociology may not play as big a part in the character portrayal as the psychology of the character. If a character is taken out, away from the way of living that he or she has adapted to and is familiar with, sociology may play a bigger part in the movie.

In Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano is an accomplished swordsman and poet. He has an education and a favorable place in the community. His name is well-known.

In Detour, Al Roberts is a working class individual who is employed as a piano player. He is a middle-class individual with no home life. His religion, race, and nationality are immaterial to his situation.

In Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery, Jack has a sociological background with a specific economic class and home life that is symbolic of the well-to-do middle class. His family is a respected part of the community. Jack wants to change all that by searching for a future away from his family and home town. Social adjustment is going to be the biggest adaption that he has to go through in the movie.

Analysis of the Three-Dimensional Characters

Each of the three characters has a specific physiology, psychology, and sociology. These attributes are stronger in one of the three areas than the others. The one strong attribute helps to progress the story by showing how the protagonist deals with the conflict.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s primary character dimension is physiology. How he deals with his physiology affects his psychological actions of love toward Roxane. This presents the conflict and rising action, including the forward progressions and the setbacks, in the movie.

Al Roberts’ primary character dimension is psychology. His temperament changes throughout the movie because of the accidental deaths that have occurred. These deaths contributed to a developing temperament of hostility and helplessness, resulting in a fatalistic demeanor.

Jack’s primary character dimension is sociology. He has built a whole life based on his family’s place in the community and his education. Now he wants to reinvent himself by moving away and establishing a new sociological background. The idea of reinventing himself drives his actions. He becomes egotistical in the process because he is looking out for himself and what he wants to do rather than assisting anyone else. No matter if he likes it or not, he has become a product of his controlling family.

Visually Demonstrating the Three-Dimensional Character

We have looked at the physical and mental backgrounds of three different characters based on their physiology, psychology, and sociology. How are these characters brought to life on the screen where everything is visually expressed? Before the cameras role and the film is edited, what is done?

Mise-en-scene is defined as all of the elements or visual elements that are in a shot. These elements are setting, lighting, staging, costumes, and make-up. The set refers to furniture and props and everything that dresses the set or is contained in the décor of the set. Staging refers to the blocking and physical action of a character.

Previously, we saw photos of Al Roberts from Detour and Cyrano from Cyrano de Bergerac. Make-up was used to express their physiological traits, such as Cyrano’s nose. It was also used to demonstrate what the character had been going through, such as the dirt on Al Roberts’ face.

At the beginning of the movie, you get to know something about the character and the time period. In the beginning of Cyrano de Bergerac, the viewer sees the costume that Cyrano had on, along with what the interior setting of a theatre was like during the seventeenth century.

The interior setting at the beginning of Detour is a diner. The diner is small and confining, like Al’s life, and he believes the police will eventually capture him. The diner is staged with the type of people, like truck drivers, who frequent that sort of restaurant when on the road travelling.

We will take a more in-depth follow-up look at mise-en-scene in the production chapters of directing (Chapter Five), cinematography (Chapter Six), and editing (Chapter Seven) to see how mise-en-scene is used by these areas of production to express a character and to further the story.

The Three-Dimensional Character Demonstrated Through Sound

Different aspects of sound enhance the character and story, making the movie a complete experience. Sound in a movie includes dialogue, music, sound effects, ambient noise, or background noise and soundtracks. Sound has always been around—even for silent movies. During the silent movie period, musical accompaniment was provided in theatres.

In the late 1920s movies began to “talk.” Many students have indicated in the film courses that I have taught that sound was the biggest innovation to movies. Dialogue is a conversation between at least two characters in a movie to exchange ideas and resolve a problem.

Dialogue is an important aspect of the sound in the movie. Even during the silent movie period there was dialogue. However, the dialogue was written on silent movie dialogue cards.

Music, whether referring to the musical score at the beginning and end of the movie, along with background music to set the tone and atmosphere of a scene, assist in leading the viewer through a complete movie experience. The music may also be symbolic of the personality of the character and the action he or she is going through at any particular time in the movie.

Sound effects, according to dictionary.com, are any sound, other than music or speech, artificially reproduced to create an effect in a dramatic presentation, such as the sound of a storm or a creaking door. These sounds heighten the action of the movie, and it heightens the interest in the characters to see what will happen to them next.

Ambient noises provide realism to a scene, giving naturalism to the area that the character is in during a particular time of the movie.

Soundtracks are musical accompaniment for a movie, such as a popular song or songs and music from the movie. The soundtrack could have a song expressing the background or a specific characteristic of the character. The soundtrack could also have music that is expressive of the story.

With the different aspects of sound expressing different features of the characters and the situation the characters are in, sound progresses the story and plot.

We will take a more in-depth follow-up look at sound in the production chapters of directing (Chapter Five), editing (Chapter Seven), and sound (Chapter Eight) to see how sound is used by these areas of production to enhance the character and progress the story of the movie.

Further Character Dissection

This brief discussion of the character outlines the complexity in building and developing a character in a movie that is going to last on an average of 120 minutes.

As we have read in previous chapters, a lot of action occurs in a movie, and the characters have to stay consistent with the construction of the movie. This is why the exposition is a very delicate part, but an extremely important part, of the story, because the main characters and their backgrounds have to be introduced. But the introduction cannot take too long because the audience will lose interest in the movie.

Enough of the main characters’ personalities have to be portrayed during the exposition so the rest of the movie has a logical progression as the audience gets to learn more and more about the characters. And, as the audience gets more and more involved with the characters and their story, the audience becomes more wrapped up in the movie resulting in an enjoyable experience for them.

Remember—with the theme, the purpose of the movie has been established. With the establishing of the purpose of the movie, the question has to be asked, “What is the best way to demonstrate the purpose of the movie?” Do the characters demonstrate this purpose?

The next question is: Do the characters work well together? Are the characters friends, enemies, or do they work together? Is this a good combination to form a good relationship and an interesting movie?

The last question is: Is the story different enough that the characters and their actions weave an interesting tapestry to make movie viewers interested in them for at least 90 minutes? This is a difficult question to answer but one that is left up to the viewer’s preference. In this contemporary period, are the potential actions of the characters and the weaving of the story interesting enough in these movies? Did the movie follow the format in an interesting manner?

After taking a beginning look and discussing the characters, what stands out as being the most important: story, plot, narrative structure, setting, or characters? What stands out as being the most memorable? What do you go to the movies for? Are you interested enough in the characters that you want to see what happens to them?

If your response is “yes” to the above questions, then you were already hooked from the beginning of the movie. If you are interested in seeing what happens to the characters that is a positive sign too. If you are ready to leave the movie theatre, then the movie is not for you.

As previously outlined in an earlier chapter, the movie action between the conflict and the climax is referred to as rising action. The action between the climax and the resolution is the falling action. Rising action is not always rising. It is more of an up-and-down motion, because the main characters have setbacks and have to start over.

Summary of Character Portrayal

Characters are the essence of a movie. Good characters are three-dimensional based on the character’s physiology, psychology, and sociology. One of the three areas may often be predominant over the others and is affected more by the story, but all have to be developed to give depth to the character.

The characters have to work well together to keep the audience interested, along with dialogue worth listening to and action worth watching. The story helps a great deal with bringing this to fruition, allowing the characters to interact with one another, and to develop logically to the climax and resolution of the movie. In this way, the audience gets caught up in the movie and wants to watch more. A good movie is like a good book; the characters have to be very satisfying. But unlike a book, a movie is a visual and audio experience. The character development has to be shown and heard.

Further Viewing

These movies are excellent examples of character portrayal:

  • Mrs. Miniver, 1942, directed by William Wyler, starring Greer Garson, Walter Pigeon, and Teresa Wright. The three stars portray people in England at the beginning of World War II and the struggles they persevered.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, directed by William Wyler, starring Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell. This movie follows the efforts to adjust to civilian life for a soldier, airman, and sailor after World War II.
  • Ben-Hur, 1959, directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd. The main character, Judah Ben-Hur, is falsely convicted and sentenced to be a galley slave. Once freed, he seeks revenge. This is a movie of character growth and change.
  • Elmer Gantry, 1960, directed by Richard Brooks, starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Arthur Kennedy. This movie follows fast-talking salesman, Elmer Gantry, and his experiences with revivalism and a female lay preacher.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck, Frank Overton, and William Windom. This movie follows a lawyer in the Depression-Era South who defends a black man accused of raping a white girl.


As Jack is finishing an undercover investigation case, he comes to realize, as he looks around his small motel room, that he is successful in another dead-end job and has no friends. He cannot have any friends, especially girlfriends, because he cannot bring them back to his place, because they may find out that he is an undercover investigator. Jack contemplates another career. His decision is to go back to college to major in his only interest, theatre. He quits his job and enrolls in college for the spring semester. Jack finds out he only has to go for one semester and take courses in his major. Upon hearing this, Jack believes his luck is changing.

On the first day of class, Jack is apprehensive because he does not know what to expect, and everybody will be younger than he. When he enters the class, which is in a theatre, he sees that it is worse than he expected, because everybody knows one another except for him. When class begins, though, all is forgotten when he listens to the professor, Alec Morgan. Jack is excited because he has Prof. Morgan for most of his classes. Jack heard that Alec had won a Tony Award, which initially interested him in enrolling in the college.

Hearing Alec speak about theatre, Jack becomes more interested in theatre, and wants to develop his talent to become successful in theatre. Jack has a tough schedule, as he obtained a job in the security department at the college working the midnight shift. Jack works all night, goes home, and changes for his 9:00 am class.

Do a character analysis of Jack based on the above information to make him a three-dimensional character.

30 “Character,” Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/character?s=t.

31 The Voice Foundation, http://voicefoundation.org/about/what-is-tvf/.