Aug 28, 2009

Article: The Looking-Glass Character

Aug 28, 2009
Like any partnership, over time we have accumulated unique sets of words and phrases - and in some regrettable instances, noises - each with their own complicated explanation.

This post is the story behind two of our phrases we have found invaluable.

The Looking-Glass Character
And The Fixed Character

For the longest time, we were developing a show concept, and though the idea was solid and the characters interesting, something wasn't working. The show hinged on it's main character, yet it didn't matter how much we polished, perfected, balanced and fleshed him out - something didn't click.

Don't get me wrong, I think this character is one of the most intriguing, watch-able characters we've created but while the show was interesting... it wasn't engaging.

This didn't come as a complete surprise, to be honest. We were trying something we hadn't tried before and that is hardly regarded as a foolproof strategy.

You see: Our main character is what we now call a Fixed Character.

The Fixed Character

Now, the Fixed Character concept is a tricky one to explain, but I'll have a go:

In most movies, characters undertake a journey in which, along the way, they grow as a person - Fixed Characters have already reached the end of the line, for better or worse.
Most characters are aware of their flaws on some level, or at least have the capability to realise something isn't working - Fixed Characters have no flaws, or if they do they aren't treated as flaws. They are larger-than-life and are who they are and cannot be anything else. They are often the Christ-Like figure, who is there to teach, rather than learn - such as Gandalf or Tin-Tin.
Most characters adapt and compromise according to their situations - Fixed Characters seem to adapt the situations to themselves. They have no ability to compromise their own personality in any way but are still able to make it work.

In The Incredible's making-of, director Brad Bird was describing the character of Edna Mode when he said she had the 'strongest sense of self' of any character in the movie. She is what I'd call a Fixed Character - one who has already completed their journey, perhaps in some earlier unreleased film, and is completely comfortable with herself.

Imagine 'E' having a character arc in The Incredibles, learning a lesson or changing in any way - it just wouldn't have been 'E', darling. It would literally be out of character to change.

It's the difference between the two Willy Wonkas portrayed in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). The original's Willy Wonka was a Fixed Character, and the latter's was not.

In the original, Wonka was this eccentric, compelling and unknowable character - the only thing he learnt in the whole movie was whether or not Charlie was worthy. It is about people's reactions to him, not about his reactions.

In Tim Burton's 2005 remake, Wonka is still eccentric but he is knowable. He is an interesting, yet relatively normal character. He also knows he isn't yet perfect, even if it is only on some unconscious level. In the end he asks Charlie for help, and Wonka's character arc is completed by reconciling with his father.

Now this isn't a judgement between the two, but watching the 1971 version was the first time I had ever witnessed such a strong and intriguing character. I find Fixed Characters are desperately tricky to come up with, desperately tricky to fit and balance and just as hard to summarise once I do - but used right, I think they can often be the single most memorable thing about a show.

So what's the problem?

We had established that Fixed Characters done properly are fantastic, and we were 99% sure that our character was done properly - but still, something wasn't clicking.

The problem was arising, we found, from him being the main character. Our theory is for most shows, audiences need to look through a character's eyes - to find that grounding point, that character who has the lesson to learn, to find that one person they can identify with. Apparently a technically flawless, larger-than-life character is hard to relate to. Most Fixed Characters have a kind of 'distance', a mystery and unpredictability about themselves makes them great to watch from the outside but never 'lets you in'. Our main character was no different.

The following problem was that the whole show revolved around him and his actions, and that 'demoting' him from that central position would literally collapse the idea.

It had to be possible to keep him as he was! We could think of many examples where it had worked:
- Doctor Who (mainly during the Golden Tom Baker years) was a Fixed Character, and the whole show was named after him
- Asterix, Willy Wonka, Bernard Black and Tin Tin were also titular Fixed Characters, as well as the BFG
- Early Superman was both a Fixed and Main Character
- 'prot' was both a Fixed and a Main Character
- Rorschach was both a Fixed and a Main Character
- Elwood P. Dowd was both a Fixed and a Main Character
- Chance the Gardener was both a Fixed and a Main Character
And they were only from things I'd read/watched recently. They were just the tip of an iceberg.
That settled it, there had to be some trick or balancing act we were missing.

Now in a 'eureka moment' we did eventually work it out - but it wasn't until I read an article, The Subtle Hero, by the embarrassingly insightful and knowledgeable Craig Mazin that I fully understood why our solution had worked.

The Looking-Glass Character

You can read the article yourself, but basically Mr. Mazin was working on adapting Harvey, and running into an eerily similar problem. Even though Elwood P. Dowd was "...the man who is in every scene of import [and] the man who delivers the big monologues..." focusing on him as a main character didn't work. The solution was to treat the doctor who cares for him as the main character - a character with a tenth of the lines!

Our solution was to introduce a 'Looking Glass Character.' A Main Character who is flawed, relatable, and basically needs what our Central Character is selling. A Frodo to Gandalf's wise leadership, Sophie to the BFG's confuddled benevolence, an Elizabeth Swann or Will Turner to Captain Jack Sparrow's wildly unconventional plans, an Alan Shore to Denny Crane's hilarious arrogance or even a C-3PO to everyone else's selfless heroics.

Back during the time of Tom Baker, Doctor Who would take its audience on this crazy adventure every week, and each week The Doctor would handle it with his usual calm flippancy and knowledgeably fix the situations. He is one of my favourite characters of all time, but I have to admit it wouldn't have worked if it was only him - He wasn't relatable, and he shouldn't have been. He was interesting to watch because he wasn't relatable.

You can't ask an audience to both feel as if they're travelling to places out of their depth AND like they're calm and in control. So the show always had a Looking Glass Character, in the form of an assistant. It was the assistant's job to scream at the monsters, to be confused at the technology and to learn the lesson at the end - everything the audience was meant to feel.

Since then, we’ve witnessed other ways to make it work. For example, fairytales often seem to keep the audience at a distance - encouraging them to be objective observers - hence the recent movie The Tale of Despeiuroueaix (or however you spell it) was able to have a Fixed Character as the Main Character. Or Star Trek, full of enlightened humans teaching aliens about love and creativity, which is very almost a cast of Fixed Characters put into strange and morally ambiguous situations. District 9, with its documentary style could have had any kind of character it wanted, as I don't think it really needed a main character at all.

But the Looking-Glass Character worked wonders in our idea, and I hope to use more Fixed Characters in the future.


  1. that was really interesting, so much valuable stuff on this blog, can't wait to put it into practice soon.

  2. Thanks. You're still aiming to get into film?

  3. yeah! definatley, ive always got good feed back on my vids, so i know i have talent in this area.

  4. wait that sounded like im up myself....

    I feel encouraged to develop my skills in film

  5. Haha, the second one was more... diplomatic - But the first was more true - you do have talent.

  6. Okay - I just thought of the most obvious example of a fixed character: Mary Poppins.

    The whole story is about how she comes into a family, practically perfect, and they all change around her.

    If I get time, I may rewrite this using her as a more primary example.


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