Good question. Screenwriters have typically thought of characters as human beings. After that, they can beasts such as King Kong and Godzilla, robots such as Chappie, I Robot and Ex Machina, or even aliens, such as err… Alien and Arrival.
So far, so good. Your screenwriting survives. The characters in your screenplay are living beings of some description.
Which brings us to the topic of today’s scriptwriting article. Can an actual location be a character in your film script? Let me ponder this one.
Certain movie locations evoke a certain mood and aesthetic in your movie script. Locations are populated by traditional characters, but they aren’t necessarily characters in the traditional sense. They don’t have any goals and they don’t have a character arc. They don’t undergo any emotional, intellectual of spiritual transformation. These are hallmarks of traditional characters.
However, characters don’t always need to change. They can be agents of change like Forrest Gump. These types of characters are called traveling angels. Can a location cause other characters in a film to change? Absolutely.
Film Locations Are More Than A Setting
Locations are more than just settings or a stage for the main action to occur. In some circumstances they are integral to a movie. They can only be set there for the movie to maintain its integrity. Consider the film Studio 54 set in the iconic New York nightclub. it can only be set in a few thousand square feet in New York City.
What about films about Paris? Paris Je t’aime, Midnight In Paris or From Paris With Love. The city of Paris takes on its own personality in each of these examples, without saying a word. The city just needs to exist and act as a catalyst for action.
Not all locations need to be that specific. Consider the grubby basement in Saw or the cabin in Cabin In The Woods. These locations are tied more to aesthetic than an identifiable geographical location.
Why Are Film Locations So Important?
Well-chosen locations heighten the main characters’ emotions such as fear, excitement and romance. They can be used to punctuate theme. For instance, consider the excitement of New York, the city that never sleeps, the nostalgic romance of Paris or the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, India. Each one of these places add a dimension to the storytelling and layer the surface action. They add nuance, depth and mood to highlight the subtext of the main character action.
What about Outer Space? This one deserves its own location category. It demonstrates the vastness of the universe, the (in)significance of humanity or solitude.
Finally, film locations are vital in foreshadowing the character journey. Consider the Academy Award winning movie Spotlight. This HAD to be set in the Catholic Church and The Boston Globe. These locations are characters unto themselves. One represents a place of evil injustice and the other of justice. They act as opposing characters in the movie and enrich the narrative.
So there you have it screenwriter folk. Locations can indeed be bona fide characters so choose them wisely.