The Town: The Importance of Respecting Your Characters

Very real issues of craft and narrative mean it’s important to think carefully about all of your major and minor characters: it results in further complication and believability. Sometimes, too, the inability to imagine a character as fully human can derail everything–in addition to alienating your audience.

I don’t like to use movies as examples, but what the heck. I’ll make an exception because it’s such a good example: the script for The Town, a movie by Ben Affleck (script by him and Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), fails miserably to flesh out the character of Claire Kessey, played by Rebecca Hall. The movie is supposed to be about long-time friends who are part of a bank robbing gang. Claire Kessey is a bank employee taken as a hostage and later let go. Affleck’s character (Doug MacRay), who Claire never saw, then falls for her, while his fellow bank robbers want her killed so she can’t identify them.

You could say the main thrust of the movie is on the bank robbers, their relationships, and what happens to them. But the crux of the film is Doug’s relationship with Claire, in part because it makes him do things that undermine his relationship with his friends and thus creates one of the central conflicts in the movie.

The problem is, Claire’s a cipher.

1–We don’t know anything about her friends.
2–We don’t know anything about her family.
3–We know very little about her past.
4–We have very little evidence about her personality, likes and dislikes, etc.

Even worse, Affleck et al have decided that Claire is so unimportant to the story that, after her kidnapping and release, she’s largely moved around the board simply to advance the plot. Several unlikely things happen, including…

1–Claire, despite being frightened out of her mind by the experience, seems to behave much as she did before being kidnapped, in terms of her day-to-day movements and activities.
2–Worse, she has no problem talking to a man she does not know, in a public laundromat.
3–And she has no problem going out on a date with said stranger.

Now, most reasonable people, myself included, if they’d been kidnapped recently, might feel the need to be more cautious. In such a context, I might not even want to go to the laundromat for awhile (except, Claire has no friends to speak of, and thus no one to ask for help). I sure as heck wouldn’t be fond of talking to strangers.

Is it possible Claire might be the kind of person who would deal with the situation differently than I would? The kind of person who would decide that a kind of confrontation with life, a dogged sticking to her normal routine, was the key to recovery? Absolutely! But to know that, we would have to have a much better idea of:

1–Her friends.
2–Her family.
3–Her past.
4–Her personality.

But we get none of that, apparently because Affleck thinks that the crux of the story lies elsewhere.

But the entire time I was watching the last two-thirds of the film, I could not get out of my head the fact that the foundation, the groundwork, had been so thoroughly botched that if the film had been re-contextualized as a house, it would’ve been leaning heavily to one side, with the bricks falling to the ground and the roof sliding half-off.

I was also getting angry, because in robbing Claire of her individuality, Affleck had trivialized the trauma that occurs when one’s personal space and freedom are violated in the way Claire’s were in the movie. Even worse, Claire’s actions at the end of the film betray any vestiges of self-respect the script has left her with…but that’s okay, the script seems to be telling us, because Claire’s mostly there so MacRay will seem somewhat noble and tragic…unless, like me, you’re by this point finding MacRay utterly unbearable because of his interactions with Claire. (The power dynamics of that relationship don’t bear scrutiny.)

The point here is that getting characters right is also about doing what’s right for the story, and when you get that backwards or you ignore a character or rob them of the normal human reactions that occur in the real world, you run the risk of having someone like me think what you wrote sucked.

6 thoughts on “The Town: The Importance of Respecting Your Characters

  1. Jeff, this is a wonderful commentary. I haven't seen the film, but this was an eye-opener, and it helped with some writing issues of my own. Did other characters in the movie have similar problems in terms of plausibility/role in the story? I'm actually almost eager to see it now as an object lesson.

    I've seen many jokes over the years about actors asking/complaining about "what's my motivation," but that's made an increasing amount of sense to me over the last couple years. Especially now! This seems like a excellent example of a situation where that question would have been completely relevant. Likewise one hears about powerful actors monkeying with scripts, and while I think there are issues of creative control and story balance to be considered when that happens, I have a little bit more sympathy now for actors who try to influence or alter the script so that their characters behave more like humans. (Rewriting for ego, on the other hand, being a horse of a different color.)

  2. To some extent, the other characters seemed authentic–I'm sure Affleck would claim they were–but when writing, it sometimes is good to play *against* authenticity if authenticity means a certain uniformity. So, you know, it would've been better if some of that gang had been further differentiated even if it meant making them less "real" than Affleck's experience in Boston would tell him. I'm assuming a lot here that they're authentic in the first place.


  3. Dennis Lehane was recently interviewed on Open Source with Chris Lydon. He said he's so strongly identified with Boston crime stories that people have come up and thanked him for writing "The Town." That's especially funny in light of this post. Considering that Affleck's previous film was an adaptation of a Lehane novel, you'd think some of :Lehane's expertise might have rubbed off.

  4. Pingback: Snow… and some links | Cora Buhlert

  5. Pingback: Friday Free for All for December 17th, 2010 | T.N. Tobias

  6. Gday, I was looking during this page using my Blackberry and this is somewhat weird. Guessed you'd wishes to know. It is some sort of excellent post nevertheless, didnt mess that up.

Comments are closed.