Ben Bradlee and character depth

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There’s a movie out now, The Post, that acts as a sort of prequel to the 1976 film All the President’s Men. Both of these concern The Washington Post and, in major and supporting roles (respectively), the newspaper’s editor at the time, Ben Bradlee. Played by Tom Hanks in the newer one and Jason Robards in the older (in an Oscar-winning turn), the editor certainly received his due from Hollywood. He’s a hero in both stories, and pushes the protagonists towards their eventual goals. That’s fine. That’s swell.

What’s interesting is that Bradlee, in both films, bursts onto the scene and chews it up whenever he’s on camera. Crass dialogue, gruff demeanor, burns through a pack a day. Bradlee takes no prisoners in the name of journalistic excellence. And yet, in neither film do we get much insight into how he became who he was. Neither film follows Bradlee as an origin story. He just is.

I wish it was that easy. That a character could jump fully-formed into the picture and be true to him or herself in every situation. Could act authentic and all that. In my experience, that’s rare. Your newest creation, Deidre Jenkins, might break through the door with a pair of knitting needles and demand her stolen ball of yarn, and the sheer awesomness of that scene might keep the readers around for another few pages, but when Deidre blows off your young knitting hero, telling him that his dream of knitting the perfect scarf is a fool’s errand, you’d better have a reason for her to think that. An experience from her past, perhaps. Maybe Deidre knitted a scarf for her friend, and, when leaving a train, the scarf caught in the doors and… you get the idea.

Point being, Deidre has to have enough of a past, enough real to make her actions plausible. Even if none of this detail (and, in most cases, it shouldn’t) reaches the reader, your work will come through in how the character behaves. In their consistency. In the subtle maneuvers they make, like meeting another person’s eyes or hovering at the edge of a room.

We don’t know a lot about Ben Bradlee from the two movies he’s been in, but he’s still a fully-realized character. We understand why he takes the actions he does, and they fall in line with his character. There’s a great scene in The Post, towards the beginning, where Bradlee asks an intern to help figure out whether the New York Times is getting a scoop. He doesn’t ask the intern to commit a crime, and he’s not advocating the intern bribe or steal things. It establishes immediately that Bradlee is both competitive and, to some degree, honorable.

Now, it’s one thing to say this about a living, breathing person who literally has a history to track and a character defined by what they actually did. Watch the HBO documentary on Ben Bradlee and you’ll get a better picture of what made the editor such a force in the newsroom. Still, taking a few minutes to establish a baseline for your side characters can lend them real authenticity. You’ll keep their actions consistent, and their goals will match (hopefully) with their own reality. That way, you won’t wind up with people randomly changing their minds, pursuing objectives that don’t align with their ultimate desires, or (worst) that seem to do nothing and are there only as foils to help the heroes/villains develop.

Every character, even Deidre and her knitting needles, deserves to be, even just a little bit, real.