Have you ever watched a movie that seemed more focused on the inner life of its central character than following a traditional plot? Plenty of movies have great characters, but how many of those same movies would have the same plot if you removed that character? This is part of what makes character studies special, as these are films whose whole premise is based around the main protagonist — their trials, struggles, hopes, and dreams. So what is a character study and how do you know when you’re watching one?
Character Study Definition
How do we define character study?
We will start by saying that “character study” also refers to when you write an essay about a character. In this article, we are of course not talking about that, but instead the character study definition in film. Characters arcs, a character’s wants and needs, and the things that make them who they are the things that make up a character study.
CHARACTER STUDY DEFINITION
What is a character study?
A character study is when a movie is driven more by the internal struggles of one or more main characters rather than an external plot. This is different from plot-driven narratives where the movie is mainly about achieving an external goal (winning the boxing match, saving the world, etc.). With a character study, the main narrative is almost exclusively driven by the character(s), which includes their motivations and feelings.
Character Study Movies:
- Black Swan
- The Master
- Lady Bird
Writing a Character Study
Classic character study movies
Plenty of classic films in Hollywood have focused their attention on the characters and not so much the plot around them. Some of them act like biopics while others narrow their focus to very specific times and places.
Citizen Kane (1941) is one of Orson Welles’ best movies, and it happens to be a character study. Chronicling the life of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles himself), the movie uses anecdotes and information from others to create a portrait of an important and powerful man who, even with all his power, still yearned for simpler and more easy-going days.
Acclaimed for its narrative, especially its non-linear structure, the film is also famous for the film techniques Welles used, proving to be massively influential in all cinematic fronts.
Taxi Driver (1975), one of Martin Scorsese's best movies, is another classic character study, with a plot that is entirely reliant on Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Using narration, we get insight into Travis, how he thinks, what his motivations might be, and why he does what he does. De Niro’s performance is vital, as he brings to life a horribly troubled and psychotic human being who is, ultimately, a reflection of ourselves.
Using StudioBinder’s screenwriting software, we can read the script for Taxi Driver — written by famed writer and director Paul Schrader — which gives us plenty of examples of Bickle, his mental state, and the way he sees the world.
One of the most popular and successful movies of all-time is also a character study: The Breakfast Club. Technically a multi-character study, this movie completely eschewed a regular plot in order to focus on the five kids who have Saturday detention in 1984.
While the characters initially see one another one-dimensionally, the lack of a central plot allows us to dig into their emotions, perceptions, and viewpoints. You can read our script analysis on The Breakfast Club, where we go over the dialogue, characters, and its impactful ending.
Another one of the best ‘80s movies of all-time is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which follows a similar path of spreading its plot by following a series of characters over the course of a single day.
In contrast to The Breakfast Club, Do the Right Thing focuses on a multicultural Brooklyn neighborhood block, which is full of heated relationships and open prejudice among whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos.
These are just some of the most notable character studies from the 20th century in cinema. But next we’ll be going over some notable and popular character studies from the last twenty years.
Character Study Movies
Recent character study movies
As some of our classic examples showed, and as some of the recent examples below will demonstrate, character studies can be varied in their genre and approach. Some follow a familiar enough path and are more obvious while others hide their character study intentions more subtly.
One of the best Coen Brothers movies is Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which focuses on a few days in the life of a struggling musician. Featuring a quality soundtrack and cast of characters, the main focus is on Llewyn, who goes from place to place and upsets almost everyone he comes across.
The Coens present Llewyn as an almost mythical figure, someone with so much talent but fails at every turn. The video below by DysnomiaFilms goes into how the Coens managed to use Llewyn as a representation of the entire 1960s New York folk scene, and how that combination also represents depression.
One of the 2000s most controversial films, American Psycho (2000) focuses on a late 1980s New York yuppie who goes on a killing spree. It has qualities from many film genres, including thriller, horror, and black comedy; all while focusing on its main protagonist, who also uses inner monologue to give us a glimpse into his psyche. It also uses its protagonist to make fun of consumerist culture; his murderous and psychotic nature emphasizes that point to an intentionally absurdist degree.
What’s most surprising about this film is that it technically lives within the superhero genre while still mostly being a dramatic thriller. Similar to some comic book arcs, the Joker screenplay shows there was room in the world of cinema to examine the inner workings of a super villain.
One of the most acclaimed character study movies of the last two decades would be There Will Be Blood (2007), one of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movies. Focusing completely on the egomaniacal sociopath Daniel Plainview (Daniel-Day Lewis), who does anything and everything to ensure his fortune in oil.
We get into his psyche, learn about him, and try to understand why he does what he does. You can get an idea for his priorities in the script excerpt below.
Some character study movies are more obviously character focused than others, but there is plenty of room for all types of movies to dabble in this type of storytelling. Whether your story is a small one, a grand epic, or somewhere in-between, just make sure your focus always comes back to the protagonist.
How writers can approach the biopic
Now that we’ve gone over character studies, why not dig deeper into what a biopic is? Our article covers the characteristics of this familiar and ever-popular genre, along with examples to help you get an idea of how biopics have evolved over the years.