Missing Character

Otareri Enoh Samuel May 14, 2024

A Case For The Missing Character

Films are rarely true representations of real life. And isn't this why we love them? The fact that we can escape the harsh realities of our immediate society, live our secret fantasies through the lives of our favorite, larger-than-life actors. We’d pay the price through tickets and time, pick the best seat in the cinema to enjoy the shows as we shovel popcorn in our mouths, and chase it down with carbonated drinks.

Movies serve as portals to alternate realities, where we can momentarily escape the confines of our own lives and immerse ourselves in the enchanting realms of imagination. Through the silver screen, we transcend the limitations of our immediate society, venturing into the realm of our deepest desires and wildest dreams.

The movie ends. We get to simmer in the leftover feeling, a glowing euphoria of what we learned—especially if it was a film that was made for local consumption, language-wise, that is. And we love those films. While producers spend large chunks of the budget and time on paying salaries, production and promotion, little is said or even known about one very important individual: the missing character.

The Missing Character: To Be or Not To Be

So who's the missing character? Well, the missing character isn't always in films, but when he or she is, you feel it.

As a movie-goer, you have a sixth sense for his or her presence even before the other characters in the film have a chance to suggest the possibility of his or her existence.

The missing character is not in the cast, but he or she is in the story. I call this very important member of the story missing because the story requires that he or she be missing. This character should actually be missing. At times, the nature of storytelling requires it.

Here are a few examples of the missing character in films: the dead parent who contributed to the messed up adulthood of a kid that's going through a meltdown, the mentor of a now rich and wealthy businessman who’s the antagonist of the film, and so forth.

This character gets mentioned in dialogue, and sometimes so much exposition is dropped here and there about this character that we know him or her as much as we know the rest of the cast. (To pull this kind of thing off takes great writing, but we’ll get to that in a moment).

There are a few examples of nollywood films where this has been successfully done, where a character whose story is important to the larger story has featured briefly in dialogue. But these examples are so unmemorable that we can't remember any. The question is, in retrospect: is the story of the missing character that important? In fact, to be or not to be?

The Missing Character: Missing But Consequential

A great script has all the characters it needs to tell the story. Whatever is left out on the threshing floor was nothing but chaff, because it contributes nothing to the whole premise

The work of the writer of the story is to determine if the character is needed. Sometimes directors slot the missing character in through a flashback—a dead parent recalled sharing gems of wisdom, an ex-boyfriend warning a main cast about jilting them, and so on.

This is how Nigerian films often slide in the missing character; the only difference is the actor is credited in the cast. It is my opinion that this is weak storytelling, or even movie making. Of course, flashbacks are effective storytelling techniques too. But they will never have the same effects as when two characters paint a picture of the missing person in a dialogue heavily laden with subtext. So, to be or not.

In the Hollywood film Gifted, the character of Chris Evans and Lindsay Duncan talk about a step father we never get to see in the movie—the missing character. The dialogue (and the acting) was so natural that you didn't mind that he was missing. We knew enough about him in those 1 minute 32 seconds to understand why he didn't come down to the courthouse with Lindsay’s character, and why Chris’s character described his step father as having a “six gun on his hip and a saddle bag full of Lipitor.” We even got to know this missing step father is 70 years old. We knew enough to understand Lindsay’s character, and why Evan’s character doesn't care about her that much.

It was an illuminating moment in the film, you could say it added to the richness of the story. So what’s wrong with most Nigerian films? They lack this richness, that is what. The stories miss the mark on the roundedness of character building because what the missing character does is provide context that no amount of flashbacks or exposition can give. In Gifted, it wasn't as much an exposition as gossip. Family members gossip with each other, friends do it too. It is in such moments that true feelings become exposed. The poignance of the missing character is rooted in psychology, and the argument here is that film writers should aim for less literalism and more subtext, not only in dialogues but also in character building and story progression.

Less Cast, More Film

As already suggested, we need more from our films. The buck for this stops, first, at the feet of writers. Granted, our society is a heavily literal one. It's in the way our conversations roll, the way we think too.

We do have our own manner of speaking, the use of idioms and all, and these do feature in our films. This writer suggests that we spice things up with the missing character. Could this mean less cast? Not necessarily. What it means is, we get more from film. We tell better stories, we become more innovative and inspired, all of which it means to be creatives.

The leaner a movie in terms of cast, the more focus is expended on storytelling techniques like the missing character. This is it: Nigerian films sometimes rely too much on star power. Sometimes we lump actors into a movie and task them with the work of amusing us

We can ditch these weak attempts at real filmmaking and start telling stories in more innovative ways. This is not meant as a swipe at all our films, but film making sure can do with some more techniques in storytelling not just camera angles or cinematography.

Final Thoughts

These days, we are getting on Netflix and shining. And the stories are becoming even better and more colorful. We can shine even more with stories that aren't just linear and bare. Directors are great innovators too. But we must begin with the way our scripts are written or structured. In a different article, I'll talk about our scripts and how a film lover feels about them.

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