All writers want their characters to seem real to the readers. The trick is to give a character more than just physical descriptions for the audience to work with. For a character to seem real, he/she must have a psychological component that informs their behaviors and choices in a narrative.
When this happens in the hands of a talented storyteller, we call that character a ROUND CHARACTER. Of course the opposite, a FLAT CHARACTER, is in place for function. Perhaps it is to contrast the characteristics of the Round Characters or to simply fill a need of the narrative. Shakespeare used heralds in most of his plays. They are not Round by any stretch of the imagination. They appear; they announce; they leave. If what they announce is pleasing to the King or Queen…they get to keep their heads! In the 2010 film The Experiment, we get two very well-rounded characters: Travis (played by Adrien Brody) and Barris (played by Forest Whitaker).
The film is about men chosen for a psychological experiment in which some will be prisoners and some will be guards. It’s an interesting exercise in how power corrupts and the ultimate power to control others is humiliation. We are shown both characters outside the experiment. Travis is given depth by showing him caring for an elderly person, making a romantic connection at the beginning, and losing his job, thus garnering audience sympathy. Barris, on the other hand is shown as a very meek man completely dominated by an elderly mother who humiliates him. So while we see Travis’s relationship with an elderly person in a positive light, Barris’s relationship is negative.
These men are interviewed in the beginning and asked questions to reveal any ethical belief systems they have. While Barris is more Christian based, Travis doesn’t see any absolute right or wrong in the universe. He is shown with a broader perspective. When the doctor says to him “Justice keeps us safe as a society,” he replies, “Justice starts wars.” Ironically it is attempts at Justice that goad Travis into breaking the rigid rules of the experiment. His pleas for rationality in the face of rigid rules and men who will do whatever it takes to enforce them contrast his cellmates “Go-along-to-get-along” attitude and the constant advice he gets to “Let it go.” But “Let it go” is something Travis finds himself more and more incapable of doing.
Barris is also a well-rounded character. His psychology is that of an abused man who has faced humiliation from those he’s loved his entire life, but has not had any sense of his own power. Once he finds himself in a position of authority, he begins using the rules as an excuse for cruelty. It’s a bit extreme and happens far too quickly for our suspension of disbelief and is somewhat a problem for this narrative, but it’s a 90 minute film. They had to move things along!
Other characters, both guards and inmates are pretty flat, but that’s okay. In this kind of situation, we often find comfort in knowing who is going to behave badly and who will stand up when the right time comes. In that regard there is little to surprise us. What we do have is an interesting and well-acted film experiment…can two actors prove anything we will believe in 90 minutes about the absolutes of our concepts of right and wrong?
Although this movie has to be a complete fiction, it is rooted in a real experiment where things went horribly wrong. Round characters appeal to us because we like to believe they are capable of both change and stability and that causes conflict and every good story is anchored in conflict. In The Experiment, the conflicts are just as personal as they are universal and that makes it an interesting view in my book.