May 18, 2019

Cars are Characters: Why Vehicles Need Personality

The details within your characters' lives are indicative of who they are, especially their cars. So, why don't your vehicles have a personality?

I don't think there's a more unifying symbol of badassery than the batmobile racing through Gotham's streets. That car was slick. It was cool. It told you everything you needed to know about Batman. He was resourceful, technical, and had gadgets to get him out of any predicament. Batman's car was a character unto itself. 

But what about the opposite feeling? 

Walter White's Pontiac Aztec screamed lower middle class. It was one of the worst production cars of all time. It shows a family in economic despair and was as pitiful as the character. 

If you haven't guessed, today we're going to talk about characters, their cars, and why you should imbue vehicles with traits of their own to accentuate the story you want to tell. 

So, start your engines and let's go. 

Why cars matter in film and television 

As writers, we constantly struggle with how we can get the message and story of our characters across the screen. We pick details that can shine like clothing hair and even build. But what if there was an easier way? My point is, the kind of car you drive makes sense for who you are. And that tracks in film and television too. 

Think about Annie's beater car in Bridesmaids

That car shows us how down on her luck she's been. But her love of it gives another dimension to who she is as a person too. Someone who holds onto the things she loves. Holds on for one more day. 

How about a car that means status?

Mad Men was incredible at using vehicles to describe characters and their frame of mind. Remember when Don gets a Cadillac? At the time it was about his status. But as the seasons went on, the Cadillac symbolized how tethered he was to capitalism. So, he got rid of it. 

And what about the Jaguar? It was a car so sexy they were willing to sell their morals to get it. And Joan along the way. 

But it was also a car that was total crap. It was always breaking down and in the end, more trouble than it was worth. 

And it cost Lane is life. 

This goes the same in comedy, too, as Larry David drives a Prius in Curb Your Enthusiasm because of all his neuroses and worry about climate change. 

This clip always makes me laugh. 

So when you work on character development, think about what car they drive first. Then work from there. 

But what if you want the car to function more like a character? 

How to give a car personality in your screenplay

We just described a bunch of cars that accentuate your character, but what if you want the car to be a character unto itself? You don't need to give your vehicle special powers or a voice, though it helps. You just need to work them into the story as a character unto themselves. This works in movies like Transformers, but it also works when the car or cars become a plot device unto themselves. 

Let's take a look at some cars with personality examples. 

Examples of cars with a personality 

First up, a car that talks. Kitt from Knight Rider is a classic example of this because the car was literally given a voice and sometimes feelings. 

While Kitt was able to rev his engines into our heart, it was sort of a cheat to have him talk and be part of the narrative. Still, having a talking car help fight crime is totally a noisy logline and a great way to work people's love of automobiles into a TV show that ran for a while and was rebooted several times.   

Speaking of cars people love that have lived on forever, let's talk Herbie. Disney's Herbie franchise has been around since the 1960s. Herbie is never the lead character in a movie but always part of the ensemble. He's usually tasked with helping the protagonists learn about themselves. Unlike Kitt, Herbie doesn't talk, but he does have personality and a sort of magic about him. 

 

Herbie is an active participant in the plot, with wants and desires that line up with his handlers. 

But what about a car that has personality and is only used as a plot device? 

Enter the DeLorean. 

Back to the Future is in my top 5, maybe top two movies of all time and the DeLorean is one of my favorite characters. 

The reason I love this car so much is that it's so finicky. It's stylish, but constantly breaking down. It feels like it's an extension of its creator, and looking at it evokes emotions. When the DeLorean is smashed by the train at the end of Part III, I shed a tear. The car was there with Marty every step of the way. It felt like it ran on a flux capacitor and will power. 

Also, the car became so personal because every point in the plot relied on it working. You were ALWAYS rooting for it to get to eighty-eight miles an hour. That's special. 

What's next? Get your characters to arc

How can my character ever be in the same breath as Michael Corleone from The Godfather or The Bride from Kill Bill? When you start to think about writing a great character in a screenplay, it can become a problem like the chicken or the egg. What came first, the character or the character arc? And when do we fall into character tropes

The truth is if your goal is to get past screenplay readers and get your script turned into a feature film or TV show, then you have to figure this out and write GREAT character arcs.

That's what this post will answer!     

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