Last night, I took my daughter, my mom, and her husband to see a limited engagement of Gone With the Wind on the big screen. It’d been years since I’d seen the film, and I was most struck this time by the touching relationship between Melanie Hamilton and Rhett Butler.
The two characters couldn’t have been more opposite. Rhett is a classic devilish rogue interested only in himself, while Melanie is as selfless and wholesome as can be. If the story had lesser writing, these two wouldn’t have had anything to do with each other. Instead, their characters are so much richer because of how much they respect and appreciate each other. And that’s the point of this week’s post: keep your characters from being stereotypes by giving them moments where they can break type.
For example, if you have a character named Randy who’s a grim-n-gritty anti-hero loner, flesh him out by giving him an undying devotion to the original Beverly Hills 90210 series. Or a love of Lifetime movies. Or a habit of reading romance novels. Or a girlish laugh when his feet are tickled.
Back to Gone With the Wind, the kindly Melanie has a great moment right after Scarlett shoots a Yankee deserter. Rather than react in horror, Melanie says, “I’m glad you killed him.” She also comes up with a quick lie to account for the gunshot and then suggests pilfering the dead man’s pockets. It’s a brilliant moment in which the character really shines—and becomes more than a simple goody-goody.
Likewise, Rhett has some great off-type moments, too. Now, you could argue that his love for his daughter Bonnie is a break from his rogue character, but there’s a hint of selfishness in his parenting. At one point, he even refers to Bonnie as the one person who’s ever completely belonged to him. No, I’d argue that it’s his admiration for Melanie where the self-centered Rhett takes on real dimension. For example, when Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Rhett returns it and makes a donation on her behalf. Or course, true to form, he also takes a playful jab at Scarlett in the process.
Perhaps most touching, when Rhett has a complete breakdown after Bonnie’s death, Melanie is the only one who can reason with him. A few scenes later, her last words to Scarlett on her deathbed urge her to be good to Rhett.
Bottom line: the key to making archetypal characters work is to give them a few moments where they break out of their mold and become more human. Likewise, real magic can occur when you have characters, like Melanie and Rhett, who can find new depths to themselves in the context of each other.