The Importance of Writing Multi-Layered Characters By David Landau

Have you ever heard the saying that the characters in your screenplay should be like an onion?  No, I don’t mean they should bring tears to your eyes or give you bad breath.  I mean they should be multilayered and during the course of your story the outer layers should be peeled off, revealing what’s inside.  This is, of course, easier said than done.  We need to know a lot about our character in order to find what’s inside. Most of us don’t even know enough about ourselves to find out what’s inside, which may be why writing layered characters can be therapeutic. But I’ll leave that to the trained professionals who charge by the hour.

There is something known in writing circles as the character mask.  This is when a character presents one appearance, but eventually another truer self is revealed later on.  A perfect example is the modern classic film which launched George Lucas’ career, along with the careers of quite a number of now famous actors, American Graffiti.

American Graffiti is one of the best ensemble movies ever made.  Screenwriters Lucas, Katz and Huyck wrote an engaging story of a group of high school graduates on the last day of summer.  What makes this screenplay stand out is the writers’ clever use of character masks to tell the story of coming of age.

The movie tracks basically four stories; the couple who have it all together, the wise guy in doubt, the nerd with a pretense of self-assurance and the cool guy with the air of indifference.  All are friends and their comfortable relationships are in flux with the departure of two into the realm of college.

But each of our main four characters hide behind a mask, concealing who they really are from not only each other but from themselves as well. The events of the evening in which the story unfolds changes them by forcing them to re-examine who they really are.  As the screenplay flows back and forth between each character’s experiences, we see layer after layer fall away until they all begin to change their outlook on life and themselves.

How all this is achieved is through simple experiences of a typical high schooler’s night on the circuit, cruising around town.  The screenwriters embedded humor in the character’s experiences.  The nerd gets the cool car to drive around in and suddenly a pretty girl hops into the seat beside him.  But when they go necking, the car is stolen and the nerd must come to grips with his true self – a loser, and not part of the cool gang.  The easy girl becomes the mirror for him to drop his mask in front of, for instead of the stereotype dumb blonde, the screenwriters make her a three-dimensional person who has her own ideas, concerns and insights.  It is under her encouragement that the nerd finally attempts to take a stand and take back the stolen car. And as he begins to fail, as only he could, it is the dumb blonde that comes to his aid. Together they succeed and realize that neither is as simple a character as they may have perceived themselves to be.  Their changes are subtle, not a total make-over. But it gives them new energy and encouragement to face the world.

In the same manner, the writers use the mask with their hot rod cool guy. While trying to impress the girls he ends up with a young preteen in his car.  While he wants to dump her and is at first embarrassed to even be seen with her, their relationship grows to one of enjoying each other’s company.  Instead of the hot womanizer persona he shows off, Mr. Hot Rod allows himself to become the gentle big brother he has deep inside.  It is this awaking that leads to him realizing that drag racing may not be what he should waste his life on.

The writers give their Wiseguy an impossible quest – the search for that beautiful woman who whispered AI Love You@ while driving past.  Is it a fantasy?  It is a dream he’s after and one that he can use to stop himself from going on and facing the future and college – which he fears.  But by bravely going after this unobtainable goal, the writers allow the Wiseguy to face a more dangerous obstacle – the street gang.  Using his wit he is able to turn the tables from captive to honorary member. He proves his bravery enough for them, and eventually himself, realizing that he can face the future and go off to college – for whatever lies ahead, he now knows he can cope.

The perfect couple are the past school president and homecoming queen. They have it all planned out – but the writers have their nice, smart, always in control guy do something that will force things out of his control.  He logically explains to his steady that they should feel free to see someone else while apart. He explains this to her and to himself as simple logic.  She reflects his cold logic back at him and makes him question his decision and motives.  The mirror she holds up to his mask forces him to lower it and take the risk of looking inside and realizing that for once, he is unsure.

In this one night, several main characters are given the opportunity to let their real self look out and get some fresh air.  Isn’t this what we all long to do as human beings?  Perhaps this is why this film resonated so deeply with the public when it was released and even today. The writers of American Graffiti used the character mask as the backbone of their story to create a full-bodied screenplay.  They let each onion peel back a few layers and if it forced any tears to be shed, they were of enjoyment.  So don’t be afraid to peel an onion or two for yourself and if it produces a few tears, so much the better.


David Landau is the author of “Film Noir Production: The Whodunit of the Classic American Mystery Film” from Focal/Routledge press. He is also an award winning cinematographer and author of the book “Lighting For Cinematography; A practical guide to the art and craft of lighting for the moving image” from Bloomsbury Press. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting from Goodard college and is the co-screenwriter of the feature film “Dark Tarot”, available on Amazon Prime. David is a full professor in the film department at Fairleigh Dickinson University, but also continues to work professionally as a DP on low budget films and corporate videos and as the lead gaffers on Lifetime’s “Project Runway Allstars”.

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