Developing a complex, engaging and believable character is hard work. It can sometimes be the make or break element of your storytelling, as the impact of your story on the audience depends on their empathy to your characters.
A great developer of characters is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. One of the characters in his masterpiece Magnolia is particularly effective in its richness and the whirlwind of conflicting emotions it gives to the audience. This character is Linda Partridge, played by Julianne Moore.
In her first scene, she is presented as a shallow woman, who can’t wait to leave the home she shares with dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) to ‘do some things and meet some people’. At this time, P.T. Anderson retains crucial information: is Linda old Earl’s daughter or younger wife? Instead, he focuses on one aspect of Linda’s behaviour, given by the evasive nature of her errands and the fact that she only shares it with Nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman); she doesn’t want to deal with Earl directly, she’s detached. This makes the audience dislike her.
When we understand in her next scene with the family doctor that she’s Earl’s younger wife at her wit’s end with her old husband’s illness, the audience’s dislike towards her character increases, as we are drawn to think that she’s after Earl’s money; she’s the villain.
When she then collects Earl’s medicine and loses it at the suspicious pharmacist, the audience doesn’t know if she’s sincere or just acting outraged. That ambivalence of her performance here unsettles and questions the audience: is she really that bad? This definitely holds our attention to the character.
Then comes the biggest shift in her character, which takes the audience by surprise; in her scene with the family lawyer, she starts by asking to change the will. This is the nail in the coffin; she’s a gold digger. But the scene (and her character) is turned on its head when she asks to be taken off the will and explains how she’s truly fallen in love with Earl now he’s dying. Her repentance is so visceral and convincing (no doubt helped by Julianne Moore’s performance) that the audience’s view on her switches totally. They forgive her for the past and understand that since she left home earlier that day, she felt ashamed, and not detached, by her situation.
When she later tries to take her own life, the audience is deeply moved, hoping she’ll survive, and once again our heart is in our mouth when the ambulance that is trying to save her, crashes during the “frog shower”.
The multilayered character of Linda Partridge, but also the meticulous order in which P.T. Anderson distills his information about her, creates a strong and evolving relationship between her and the audience. This is a lesson for all of us writers; not only do we have to know our character back to front, but we also have to know which and when to provide information about our characters.