A question about The Departed and Donnie Brasco
In my mind, the main character is the one who undergoes the highest level of change throughout the story, and the protagonist is the one who takes the primary action to achieve the main goal of the plot. In most cases, this is one and the same, but sometimes the two functions are deligated to separate characters.
The best example I can think of is in Million Dollar Baby. In that film, Clint Eastwood is the main character as he goes from not valuing women to valuing them, whereas Hilary Swank literally and figuratively fights to achieve her goal of a title challenge but never changes on a fundamental character level.
I’m researching my next script and thought this would be a good place to get some opinions.
Hi Nir Shelter,
I’m going to use my NEGATIVE TRAITS THESAURUS (anyone reading this who hasn’t got one – please run out and get a copy) to help you out.
The DiCaprio character is the main character. Billy Costigan I think?
Off the top of my head: he’s guarded, private, honourable (doesn’t he join the force because he doesn’t want to be associated with the bad guys? or his own blood ties?). Granted, honourable is not a flaw. But you could say he takes it to an extreme. Again – not a flaw. I’d say obsessive – but I dunno, not really.
Anyways – from the book…
Confrontational. Dishonest. Evasive. Hostile.
Martyr – interestingly, the book has a different meaning. However – Billy does give himself fully over to this thing. His body and soul. His life. (But yeah – this isn’t a flaw, this is more out of hands.)
Manipulative – perhaps? This is more the Damon character. Colin, I think?
Nervous – definitely.
Paranoid – yep.
Workaholic – perhaps this one overall. He gives his life and soul to his work. He becomes violent and volatile to fit in and because he has to (or he else he’s fucked). What else? You could say “unethical” because he’s constantly blurring the lines between cop and criminal.
Worrywart – sure.
A lot of these could be applied to Donnie Brasco as well. I’d say WORKAHOLIC in both cases. Doesn’t Brasco continuously pick work over spending time with his wife and family? Good film – love the scene with the watch.
First of all, I’ve become rather fluid on defining and applying terms and paradigms to plotting. Terms and paradigms are supposed to be tools, not inviolate rules.
“The Departed” is my favorite Scorcsese crime film. But I don’t think it’s a flawless film. I think it breaks some screenwriting “rules”. But it is certainly not boring. Not for any of its 151 minutes. In my rule book the one inviolate rule is: “Thou shalt not bore thine audience.” Boring an audience is the unpardonable sin and the whole purpose of all the “rules” is prevent a screenwriter from committing the unpardonable sin.
I’m mostly on the same page with you in your definitions of the main character and protagonist. Yes, most of the time they’re one of and the same. When they aren’t, I, too, would give the “protagonist” nod to the character who more than any other has the job of struggling for the objective goal.
However, when they aren’t one and the same, I’m not so sure about the character arc criterion.
In “The Departed” I would tap the mob boss, Frank Costello, as the main character. I haven’t timed the scenes he’s in, but I think it’s safe to say he gets more screen time than any other character. Or at least he’s a close second to the good cop, Billy Costigan.
More important, he’s at the center of the the story. He is in every way the central character (a synonym for main character). Everyone else is acting in response to him and just about everything that happens is because of him or about him.
I would designate the good cop as the protagonist because he is tasked with the primary responsibility to achieve the objective goal, build a strong enough case to take down Costello. And further, it’s a pro-social, pro-moral goal.
What is Billy Costigan’s character flaw? I dunno. I don’t see one. I see him as a tragic hero/victim of circumstances beyond his control. He dies at the hand of the bad cop who is more cunning, who is in a better position to stay one step ahead of him.
And why can’t Billy be a tragic victim through no fault of his own? That was the original essence of Greek tragedy. The Greek term “hamartia” has incorrectly been rendered character flaw. But in the days of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, it merely meant a mistake made more in ignorance than because of a character weakness. IOW: a blind blunder. And all it took was one to seal a character’s fate. Oedipus was doomed to fulfill the prophecy to kill his father and marry his father no matter how he tried not to. Because that was his fate. Mere mortals are pawns in the hands of the gods.
But I digress.
I can’t think of any major character in “The Departed” who has a significant character arc that transforms him or the outcome of the story.
I’ve only seen Donnie Brasco once, when it first came out. If you don’t think he’s both the main character and protagonist, I would be interested as to why you think that is the case.
In regards to Dingam having a character arc, I’ll have to think about that. However, I don’t see him as the main character. For one thing, he doesn’t have much screen time, far less than than BIlly, Colin and Frank. (He might even have less screen time than the only female character, the shrink, who serves as the love interest.)
I see Dingam’s getting “street justice” on Colin as being true to his defining characteristic from FADE IN: to FADE OUT:; that is, abrasive, combative At the start of the film he’s as abrasive with Colin as as he is with the Billy. He later insults Frank Costello to his face.
Dingam resigns after the death of Queenan rather than work for his successor. He has to be restrained from attacking Colin — and at that point he doesn’t know just how guilty Colin is. When (off screen) he eventually figures out that Colin not only killed Billy, but is also complicit in the death of his boss Queenan. So even if Billy hadn’t been killed by Colin, Dingam would still have all the motivation he needed to avenge the death of his boss.
(But the whole 3rd Act is littered with plot holes and “WTF?” story beats so your ideas about Dingam’s role is as good as mine.)
As I said earlier, I have become somewhat fluid in defining and applying character roles and paradigms. As it happens I just read a character breakdown for “The Shawshank Redemption” by one of the more popular screenwriter gurus in the U.S. And I just don’t see it that way, how he pigeonholes the characters. I should take that as the inciting incident to post a logline for “The Shawshank Redemption”.