Note: The film Jaws was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name.
After re-watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), I realised that forty-four years have done nothing to remove it from its position at the top of the food chain.
A feat of incredible storytelling, it contains some of the most memorable characters ever created; characters that have much to teach us about writing believable human beings of our own.
If you haven’t seen the film (go watch it!) and are unconcerned with spoilers, I’ll give a brief outline:
It’s summer and Amity Island, New England, is awash with tourists. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), having recently moved to the island from New York receives a phone call one morning telling him that the remains of a young woman have been found on a local beach.
Due to the island’s economic reliance on tourism, the mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to close the beaches despite multiple shark attacks and subsequent appeals.
Only when his own children’s lives are risked does he finally agree to hire the eccentric fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to resolve the problem.
Along with Brody and young marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) the famous trio set out together on a seafaring mission to save the community…but will their combined forces be enough to take down the most dangerous shark the world has ever known?
Literary terms can sometimes be vague and difficult to grasp but simply put, characterisation is the way in which a fictional character is made believable by his or her creator. There are two categories within this:
Direct characterisation: stating explicitly who a character is either through description or commentary e.g. ‘Martin Brody, the police chief of Amity Island is quick thinking and proactive.’
Direct characterisation is used most commonly in narrative works. It is occasionally employed in plays and films.
Indirect characterisation: inferring who a character is through their dress, their words, their actions and how they relate to others. It’s used in narrative works and all dramatic works; the primary method in film.
To give an example, a short time after Brody discovers the first victim on the beach, he files out a report and then goes to a local hardware and sporting goods shop for supplies:
Brody emerges with enough poster-board, wooden stakes, nails, paint, and brushes to close every beach on the island. He starts back the way he came when Hendricks shoots up the street in the patrol jeep. He stops fast enough to call attention, leans out the window:
I sent Sammy out ahead of me to the
South Chop beach until I can make
up the signs.
Let Polly do the printing.
Brody does this in such a hurry that he knocks over a large pot of paintbrushes. At this point in the film, a shark attack is only the probable cause of the girl’s death but through his actions we can infer his personality.
Because films rely heavily upon indirect characterisation I personally find they’re really useful for improving the art of ‘showing,’ even if a mixture of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ is required in fiction.
Two Important Questions
- What are the characters like?
- How do we know this?
We’ve already touched on Brody but let’s go a little deeper. Firstly within the first five minutes of meeting him we realise that he’s a safety conscious person.
When his son comes in the backdoor with a large cut on his hand from the garden swing, Brody is angry and says: ‘Those swings are dangerous. Stay off there. I haven’t fixed them yet.’
This foreshadows the days to come when the danger in the sea prompts Brody to fight relentlessly for the beaches to be closed while he ‘fixes’ the problem of the shark.
Brody also reveals through his actions that he is a self-contained, serious person.
When he discovers the remains of the young woman on the beach, his principal reaction is to remove his glasses and turn his head out to sea. He also interacts and reveals his emotions to other characters only when necessary.
Although all three of the protagonists have a collective mission to kill the shark they are also on their own personal missions. This aspect of Brody’s character (along with his determination) theoretically mirrors the nature of the shark, strengthening the notion that this is ultimately their fight.
It’s these mirroring qualities that are often present in protagonist and antagonist that are matched one against the other to determine who has the strength of character to emerge as victor.
Yet More Juicy Character Stuff
With character design there’re always going to be some aspects of personality that are more essential to the plot than others; aspects that need to be introduced early in order to create believability later.
Probably the two most important chez Brody are that:
- He’s a family man.
- He’s phobic of water.
In the course of a story, a character will also grow as a result of their experiences, their motivation pushing them towards a certain goal. Yet hungry sharks aside, there’s also an internal antagonist making life difficult. For Brody the situation couldn’t be worse.
Not only tasked with a huge physical obstacle, to achieve his goal he also has to overcome his biggest internal obstacle: his fear of water. Just before the first witnessed shark attack, an old swimmer says to the police chief: ‘you don’t go in the water at all do you?’ and laughs.
Brody doesn’t handle this comment well. Similarly when he later cries out for everyone to get out of the water, he steps back nervously from each small wave that rolls onto the sand as if he can’t stand the smallest amount to touch him.
This scene tells us one important thing from two small actions: however big Brody’s desire is to protect, his fear of water is greater. This is something he will have to overcome in order to defeat the shark or, in other words, as part of his characterisation; he has no choice but to grow as a person.
Jaws shows us that this is a gradual process we don’t have to rush. As with non-fictional people, it’s more realistic for this to take a longer period of time.
Even when Brody has worked up the courage to go to sea, the immortal line: ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’ reveals his severe discomfort in the space not because of one statement, but the fact that he refers to ‘a bigger boat’ three times!
This is going to be a two-parter because I think an epic film deserves an epic post! I knew this was meant to be when I drove past Sainsbury’s and saw their summer food campaign banner that read ‘you’re gonna need a bigger boot.’
I hope this has helped you gain new insight into characterisation and until the next instalment, take care of yourself in and outside of the water!
Until next time,
References: all quotes taken from the original screenplay.