Screenplay Character


Authority can be about power or expertise, or just about attitude. This major human trait regularly motivates our actions. Authority can operate quite naturally and usefully, or it can become twisted. It can bring humor, depending on how it's portrayed. Engaging characters benefit from a clear relationship to authority.

Avoid the passive central character . .

Typically, one's first dramatic story shows the central character--what the writer might optimistically call the 'hero'--going through life passively with bad things just happening to him. He's just an innocent victim with no power over, or responsibility to overpower, events and forces that affect him. This may well reflect how the writer views his own life experience.

Give the central character authority . .

We go to movies to see quite the opposite. We go to see the central character--a true hero with major character flaws--take direct action to defeat the weaknesses, problems, and forces that plague him and in the process changing and growing. He must have authority, therefore, authority over his own life. How much of our lives deal with gaining such authority? How does this authority relate to fate, doom, and destiny?

Interesting characters often have authority over people or things. They're powerful political, business, crime, or other such figures--that's what makes us want to watch them. Or their ambitions have been thwarted and the story shows they fighting to attain the authority they covet. Perhaps they're just highly authoritarian, controlling, manipulative with the other characters--to a degree that's perverse. The story shows this being resolved through character change.

Make him an authority on something . .

An authority on a subject, an expert people turn to in time of need, makes an engaging character. The story can turn completely around the subject the central character masters, e.g., criminal law, mathematics, psychiatry, gun play. An amateur ornithologist might save the day when a bird must be identified or trained. A London cab driver, an authority inside his taxi as well as on streets and locations in London, might take charge of a situation and deliver the goods.

Authority changes with the situation . .

The underlying regal tendencies of a character might emerge situationally, as with a woman who acts the queen in a beauty shop only to return to her trailer home once fully done up.

Authority can become obsessive when the domain shrinks. For the office worker it may be his cubicle, for the secretary her desk, for the janitor his cleaning closet, for the carpenter his toolbox, and for the seamstress her sewing machine. A major authority collapsing to a smaller arena, can lead to heightened intensity. The English empire stuffed into an island heightened class hierarchy. The rear admiral retires and now rules over his home as if over a battleship. A retired nurse ministers to her grandchildren as if they were her patients. A once powerful figure ends up in a wheelchair where he develops obsessive control over those who provide him with care.

Authority can be abused . .

Authority can be abused, such as with Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979)-- leading other characters to eliminate his power. It can be the only thing a character has to offer the world, as with the computer hacker in The Score (2001), leading to humor. It can be absurd, as with an eleven year-old boy portrayed as 'an expert on women', or informal, a young girl being an authority on Ken and Barbie's romance.

  1. The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.
  2. One that is invested with this power, especially a government or body of government officials: land titles issued by the civil authority.
  3. the power to exercise authoritative or dominating control or influence over; "he has the authority to issue warrants"
  4. The power derived from opinion, respect, or esteem; influence of character, office, or station, or mental or moral superiority, and the like; claim to be believed or obeyed; as, an historian of no authority; a magistrate of great authority.
  5. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience: political observers who acquire authority with age.
  6. an expert whose views are taken as definitive; "he is an authority on corporate law"
  7. Confidence derived from experience or practice; firm self-assurance: played the sonata with authority.

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  1. Review the classic The Karate Kid series of films (1984 on). Consider the martial arts authority Pat Morita plays. How does he portray his authority in this field? How does he get his points across? How does this set up the story?
  2. View the action-adventure film The Fugitive(1993). Consider the authority the Tommy Lee Jones brings to the screen. How does it drive the story?
  3. Review the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction (1994). Consider the faux authority Harvey Keitel's character provides to the story. How does it add to the dark humor?