When you were creating and conceptualizing your characters, did you ever get that feeling that you’ve seen them somewhere before? You know… that feeling that they aren’t very original, or that they’re just copies of your favorite character?
Or maybe, you can’t help but shake the feeling that all of your characters sounds the same, look the same… that they share the same face: YOUR FACE, and you don’t know what to do about it.
Creating a unique, original character can be tricky. Often we end up with old archetypes (otherwise known as cliche characters).
But there’s still a way to create interesting characters, even if you feel like you’ve seen them before. That’s what brought me, today, to talk about another movie I love, Leon: The Professional.
IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTRAST
It’s the idea of creating contrast in your characters.
What exactly does that mean?
When you watch the opening scene to Leon, you’ll instantly get what I’m talking about.
You see, the great thing about this scene is that it’s both familiar, and yet at the same time different.
If you’ve watched all the mobster movies like The Godfather or The Sopranos, or whatever, you’ll know that you’ve seen this scene a hundred times before. And so it becomes a bit predictable. But then, this scene is more about setting up Leon as our protagonist more than anything. And this scene introduces him in such a brilliant way that he doesn’t come off as a cliche character.
So in this scene, we have two people, Leon (played by Jean Reno) and his boss, and they’re talking about Leon’s next target. So straight out the gate, we discover that Leon is a hitman. That’s not very interesting. We’ve seen that before.
Rather, what makes it interesting is the fact that once they’ve settled their business, rather than take a shot of vodka or whiskey, Leon chugs down a glass of milk. What makes this opening scene even better (and also slightly funny) is that once Leon sets his glass back on the table, the director aptly cues in the foreboding music, “Boom! Badaboom!”.
That right there, is the contrast I’m talking about.
Take your archetype, or seemingly cliche character, and give him a characteristic, attitude, or feature that is contrary to who he appears to be on the outside.
So externally, Leon appears to be a very hard man. He’s a killer, after all. And in the scene following this meeting, we see just how dangerous Leon can be. He slaughters his target’s bodyguards, vanishing in and out of the shadows, and striking with inhuman timing and precision.
Then, in the next scene, we get to see a softer side of Leon.
At the beginning of the scene, Matilda (played by a young Natalie Portman), is seen smoking at the top of the stairs. When Leon sees her, he shows a bit of concern over her smoking, and over the fact that she has a bruise on her face from her father.
Matilda, herself, is a character with contrast. She’s what? Fourteen? Fifteen? When she speaks to Leon, she seems nice—sweet even—despite the stark colors of her clothing—which suggest otherwise. Even Leon, if you’d notice, speaks to her with a kind of tenderness.
So here we have someone whose job requires a certain level of toughness and roughness. Yet the minute he comes face to face with a young girl, that tough exterior is gone.
Finally, let’s not forget the fact that Leon’s job is dirty—in a literal sense. It’s bloody. It’s messy.
However, once you see Leon going about his usual business at home, he can be pretty meticulous about cleanliness and hygiene. In fact, there’s not a spot of blood on him or his clothing. He’s practically immaculate!
When he irons his clothes, he takes special care not to damage them.
When he cares for his fern, he’s even more cautious and meticulous. He checks each leaf, sprays it, and then wipes it dry.
We see him again later, catching a movie during his free time—a musical too, no doubt. You catch the smile and the wonder on his face, and you know that this isn’t just any normal assassin. In fact, he’s quite the character.
Especially when he brings out this guy to cheer Matilda up after she’s just lost her family.
Again, it’s all just contrast.
CONTRAST CREATES COMPLEXITY
We’ve all said things we didn’t mean.
We’ve done things contrary to our beliefs, or contrary to who we believe we are, or how we see ourselves.
We lie to ourselves all the time.
Most of the time, there’s a difference between who we really are, and what we reveal to the world. There are certain things we don’t show others about ourselves, certain things we hide and keep secret.
That’s what makes us complex.
That’s what creates contrast.
CONCLUSION & APPLICATION
What lies do your characters like telling themselves?
What masks do they wear when they leave their homes?
But more than that, what qualities or characteristics do they have that just don’t jive with what they look like.
Your techie, geeky-looking classmate might just be the best athlete out there on the field.
Your hunky, beefy, greasy mechanic might live a secret life as a metrosexual florist.
Maybe that kid that used to bully you in high school has a stash of dolls in his closet. These dolls he likes to dress up in all sorts of fashionable clothing. Maybe he even sews the garments himself.
Just like with Leon, there’s always a side to our initially cliche characters that maybe we just haven’t seen yet. You just have to dig a little deeper.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you encounter any books, movies, or TV shows that have characters with stark contrasts between who they are and who they appear to be? Share them in the comments!