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Guillermo del Toro on plot, on character, on change, and on discomfort:

October 17, 2009

“We live in an age when no matter what type of movie you make, most of the time you encounter this sort of Robert McKee …studio type of notes in which people tend to tell you: ‘what is the character arc’  ‘where are you hitting plot point number one, plot point number two,’  ‘where are you enunciating the character’s drive,’  ‘should the character be more proactive,’  ‘should the character be less passive,’  blah blah blah and I quite frankly hate these things, hate these notes.

I think that drama cannot be deducted, it should always be constructed.

I think that people tend to take these manuals of ‘how to write a movie in 30 days and be incredibly successful in selling it’ and they take them as religion – and the reality is that for every time someone mentions a ‘proactive’ character I think of …many characters in literature that are quite the opposite – they are passive characters.

I remember …teacher used to say – and god bless him – he always said: “there are two types of characters in literature and in film. Those that are interesting because they change, and those that are interesting because they don’t change.”

You have to value both.

It’s a dictum in Hollywood, and a paradigm, that a character has to change through a screenplay. And quite frankly, it’s nonsense.

* * *

We live in a world that really pushes us toward… the easiest thing is to deny deny deny and to destroy anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.

That’s a word I hate. Comfort.

Buried in that term ‘uncomfortable’ –

I think comfort is the root of a lot of evils, and that’s probably very Catholic– but I always think that we should always try to take the uncomfortable route and we will find a little more of truth.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. JJS permalink*
    October 17, 2009 3:05 pm

    The magnificent filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on, among other things, the perennial pronouncement that ‘Character Must Change!’ in fiction/film/story: a statement I’ve been questioning for years, forever – particularly in recent work in which I’m going after the idea that the basic nature of tragedy is that character does not, in fact, change.

    From his director’s commentary on the second release of his film “The Devil’s Backbone” – the first release had a different commentary, I guess. This second release commentary is one of the finest lectures on Gothic Romance, mixed-genre work, fable/fairy tale, and storytelling in general I’ve heard. Highly recommend listening to it.

  2. JJS permalink*
    October 17, 2009 3:09 pm

    On Facebook, a conversation started unfolding which I’ll put here instead: a friend (who can out himself here if he wants) said –

    “you know what, i spend a lot of time thinking about these types of things, albeit in the realm of philology, and i think you observation regarding tragedy is poetic, as well as astute, and very correct: neither oedipus nor herakles nor medea change. rather, what changes is context and circumstance. not only is this what makes them tragic, it is also what makes them heroic, and why each of them transcends his/her own demise.”

    Which statement led me into the following treatise. Feel free to jump in!

    Yes, with the caveat question: DO they transcend their own demise? Or is the tragedy that they don’t, can’t, won’t, and neither will we? That circumstance changes, that some behavior can change, but that essential character does not (neither Medea’s character nor Jason’s, leading to the precise mathematic of what happens as a result of their conflict, etc., for all iconic characters and for our own).

    Fate, of course, plays a humongous role in the Greek tragedies, when what I’m talking about is not even vaguely about a deity or deus ex machina or blame-able source external to the individual – it’s about how circumstance shapes character – including the limitations of the character – and whether or not that character can ever transcend its own nature.

    It’s NOT an apolitical argument. At all. People think that’s what I’m saying when I talk abut this, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes we can change behavior. Yes we can effect social change (hello, find me a better/more aggressive activist than Euripides). Yes we MUST effect change.

    But can we alter our basic nature? If we have been shaped into X, can we turn ourselves into Y? I’m not at all convinced we can. We can choose some Y behaviors, maybe, sometimes, some of us, but it seems to me that tragedy inheres in the fact that we remain precisely what we are.

    This notion is sheerly appalling in our culture of self-help, particularly since billions and billions of dollars hinge on the success of a widespread social belief in our power to not only change ourselves, but our power to change our ‘realities.’

    I think there is a fundamental horror of the very real kinds of powerlessness which exist, a fundamental refusal to examine the power structures which enforce that powerlessness, and on the most individual/personal level, a failure of the imagination when it comes to what we actually can affect and what we cannot. We focus endlessly on changing ourselves, generally with little success at the most root levels (often with truly positive behavior changes, but little movement, if any, in our fundamental natures) – and we do this at the expense of real social change, real political action. We bog in solipsism.

    Medea – and people’s reactions to the play – offers a penultimate example of this. To oversimplify something which is far more interestingly complex in the interest of example: that play is not about a jealous crazy woman who kills her kids because her husband is a cad bumping uglies with a younger woman who offers him better political alliances and therefore more personal power.

    It’s a brutal and aggressively political play about the slavery of women, children, and non-citizens.

    The most cursory research into the context of the play shows this. But the vast majority of people cannot grasp it. It’s too uncomfortable. It cuts too close to home. To this day. Which is why I love Euripides with a mad passion.

    Of course, I also love Euripides with a mad passion because every dimension of the very true human pettiness and relational agony is also still and truly in there in Medea. It’s messy as hell.

    But no one changes, and that is the tragedy.

    In my own writing right now, in one project in particular, I’m looking at this in terms of a relationship between a batterer and a rescuer, and the unfolding tragedy born of how each is utterly bound by their nature, by their role.

    But it applies all over the place, and I imagine I’ll be working out how and to what effect for the rest of my life, because – well, because it’s messy as hell.

  3. Joseph permalink
    October 17, 2009 4:19 pm

    bog in solipsism, indeed!
    in aeschylus, and even in sophokles, there is the pervasive, implicit (and never explicit) notion that there is a presiding order to the course of events that is unalterable, imposed by deities who often establish it reacting (disappointingly) with capricious petulance to the perceived slights of other deities and hubris-soaked humans. the tragedy for the human players is that they cannot discern this seemingly random order, so are left without sufficient information to make any reasonable choices about changing themselves even if they did wish to do so.
    The postmodern euripides is all over this, as you observe. that’s why we like him best! the ultimate “mess” would, i think, be pentheus’ glorious sparagmos at the conclusion of the bacchae, which, at the hands of his mom, sets up so nicely next to medea’s own mess.
    I am sorry this is brief, and much less well thought out than i would rather, but i will not be tethered to a computer with time to think again until tuesday, and i didn’t want to leav this hanging.
    the whole political thing is indeed messy, which is why i abhor talking politics, aside from the fact that PEOPLE DON’T CHANGE.
    but here’s my ray of hope, i think. i’m throwing it out here as an anecdote, because it says a great deal more than what i have time to otherwise express:
    my wife and i have made a conscious effort to make sure that all of our daughter’s doctors and dentists are women of color.

  4. JJS permalink*
    October 17, 2009 6:44 pm

    Did you ever read Moses Hadas’ introduction to “Ten Plays by Euripides”? He’s a mad lover of Euripides too – and also breaks open the language at the onomatopoeic level in this gleefully geeky way which makes me happy.

    I see your hope, and raise you the notion that these kinds of behavioral changes which shift perception – and as a result shift both racism and understanding of self in the relation to others,

    or the kinds of behavioral change that happens when a junkie gets clean or a drunk gets sober and as a result is less of a hazard to others and more able to experience their lives with some intention and joy,

    are not only good things, but necessary – crucial – ones


    that they don’t actually speak to character change at all.

    The person who is fundamentally shaped like a narcissist will remain so. The person who is fundamentally shaped like a ‘helper’ will remain so. The person who is fundmentally shaped by their overriding inability to operate in anything but a scarcity model will ever view others as getting something which is being withheld from him/her. The person who is of fundamentally sanguine nature will remain so. The person who is fundamentally a chameleon will not ever suddenly start having consistent beliefs or ethics which hold longer than their current audience.

    So my theory is that this will all limit that character’s experience of their world and the events and choices in it: they might actually succeed in behavior change, and it might actually make the world a marginally better place, or make them feel better, and that’s good. But their basic nature will continually play out, just perhaps in different circumstances.

    The drunk in recovery can transform their behavior, and that will improve their lives and the lives of those around them, and that matters. And, they will remain fundamentally the same person they were before.

    The true bigot or batterer can be made to attend whatever training, and they might even change their behavior, but their basic nature of oppositional and tribal thinking, of belief that it is acceptable to destroy others in pursuit of self, of lack of empathy, remains.

    I’m being repetitive now.

    Point is, I think that by whatever combination of nature and nurture, we are shaped into our adult character, and it doesn’t change. Our behavior can, we can re-wire and wire new, perhaps better, pathways (ie: behavioral responses, not worldview or basic nature or emotional/cognitive interpretation of events) in our lumpy brains.

    And in terms of fiction or narrative arc or whatever, those choices and re-wirings are the stuff of great drama.

    I agree with del Toro, though, that the subject of UNchanging nature is also the stuff of great drama – and if tragedy’s what you’re working on, it’s kind of the heart of the thing, to me.

    In terms of human experience, the more mundane, daily implication is: don’t make a cook a waiter, a narcissist might make a great rock star, trying to get a sociopath to behave as though they have empathy will probably do little but make mincemeat of the person trying to change them, the helper will always try to fix, etc..

    Sometimes I think the greatest benefit to therapy or the self-examined life would be to let it simply be this: maximize efficiencies, minimize liabilities.

    But of course, that’s not very dramatic.

  5. JJS permalink*
    October 17, 2009 7:09 pm

    All of a sudden I’m trying to imagine Bartleby in group therapy.

    Which leads, of course, to the thought that Bartleby’s profound lack of change is one of the more gripping dramas I know.

    He’s a cipher onto which we project every single individual drama we have, and then upon closer examination, we see that we’re probably wrong, and start projecting something new.

    It’s great drama, it’s fundamental catharsis.

  6. Joseph permalink
    October 20, 2009 3:12 pm

    an answer to your inquiry: maxine does not think people change. she thought it was a really stupid question, in fact.
    she gets exasperated when she is made aware of all the things all children know, that adults then forget. it’s embarrassing for me, since i remember consciously telling myself that i would not forget these things, throughout my childhood.
    I think that bartelby would be in a group session with the little prince, to no one’s advantage.

  7. JJS permalink*
    October 20, 2009 5:27 pm

    Maxine is a genius.

    Please write a story about, or make a painting of, Bartleby and the Little Prince in group therapy? Please?

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