Writing Unforgettable Characters
A hero or heroine’s strength or brilliance can be measured
by the quality of their opponents. Would Sherlock Holmes seem so brilliant if
he were up against a common thief instead of a criminal mastermind? Would Harry
Potter be just another child wizard if Voldemort didn’t symbolize supreme evil?
It’s difficult to identify the true villain in the recently
released movie, Saving Mr. Banks.
Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith present two indomitable characters
with opposing goals. Walt Disney wants to adapt P.L. Travers’s book, Mary Poppins,
into a movie.
P.L. Travers wants to protect her
characters from Disney’s perceived frivolity. She refuses him for twenty years,
and agrees to meet Disney only when faced with dire financial difficulties.
From the outset, Mrs. Travers is prickly and oppositional.
Walt Disney is affable and determined. Travers blocks his every move to
transform her book into a fluffy, animated
musical. The author appears destined to become a cartoon foil to the more
loveable Disney. The great surprise in Saving
is the use of backstory to slowly shift the viewer’s perception
of the contentious Mrs. Travers.
defines “backstory” as “a story that tells what led up to the main
story or plot (as of a film).”
Unforgettable characters have compelling
backstories that drive their current goals. Walt Disney had promised his
children he would make Mary Poppins
into a movie. Late in the film we discover details about Disney’s father that
provide further understanding of his motivation. But it is Travers’s Australian
backstory —and what it reveals about her father and her relationship with him —
that profoundly changes our understanding of her.
As Mrs. Travers’s backstory unfolds, Marcel and Smith slowly
build her emotional foundation. The shapeshifter archetype comes to the fore. Spoiler Alert!
Travers’s father shapeshifts from an
imaginative, playful, doting father to a drunk who is unable to hold a job or
grow up. As our perception of him changes, so does our empathy for, and our
understanding of, his daughter.
On another level, the shapshifter archetype brings fresh
comprehension to Travers’s assumptions about Disney. In The Writer’s Journey,
Christopher Vogler states, “By nature we look
for people who match our internal image of the opposite sex.” Subconsciously,
Travers judges Disney’s whimsical, magical (pixie dust!) side through the
filter of her past and projects her father onto him. She wants to save her
beloved characters from Disney because she fears he is too much like her
father. But a character’s greatest weakness can be his greatest strength.
Without the destructive influence of alcoholism that killed Travers’s father,
Disney transformed imagination, magic, and childhood wonder into a highly
Travers’s emotional journey from distrust to trust, from
disempowerment to empowerment, makes her an unforgettable character.