Understanding Your Character & Their World

Monday 9 December 2019

“Watch the way she moves...
Imprecise, but effortless.
She’s not faking it.”

That was what ballet company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) had to tell Nina (Natalie Portman) about his newest soloist, Lily (Mila Kunis), who flew straight from San Francisco to vanquish every chance Nina has to be the Swan Queen in a remarkable production of Swan Lake. Or at least, that’s what Nina thinks. 

From the very beginning and up until the credits, Black Swan (2010) revels in duality. It presents the good, the bad, and at what point they may threaten a person’s success—and possibly their life. Extremes are dangerous, and Nina performs both to perfection throughout the film. But who exactly was responsible for Nina’s (literal and metaphorical) downfall? 
For those of you who have watched Black Swan, you know the iconic line:
“The only person standing in your way is you”
So technically, Nina would responsible for losing her sanity over an important role. However, the way Nina or any other character thinks and acts depends heavily on his or her worldview, which they don’t build themselves. Let’s dive a little deeper:

What does “worldview” mean?

It’s exactly what it says: the way someone views the world. It’s no wonder this term is widely used in marketing to find out what a specific audience is like. 
Whoever you are, there are many people and reasons behind it. It’s the same with your characters—they can’t “just be” who they are.  (By the way, I’ve discussed this topic in this article). 
Some of the factors that contribute to our worldview are:
  • Upbringing
  • Social class
  • Events that take place in our lives
  • The people we listen to
  • The books we read, the films we watch
And so on. The factors above build one’s answers to questions such as: “Is the world a place of camaraderie or competition?” “Are people trustworthy, or you shouldn’t trust anyone?” “Is perfection real, or is it a a man-made concept?”.
In Nina’s case, the world is out to get her. People are evil and will go out of their way to surpass her. Last but not least, perfection is what she strives for, day in and day out. 
It’s up to her to break through those beliefs and successfully embody the Black Swan. 
Each person in Nina’s life played a different role in her worldview. Here they are:

The Overprotective Mama
Erica (Barbara Hershey) used to be a dancer as well, but she never left the corps (a group of dancers who aren’t soloists). That’s where it begins: Nina followed in her mother’s footsteps. 
Nina is all the company she has, as Erica spends her free time tutoring ballerinas, sewing ballet shoes, painting, and crying. She’s still very dependent on her daughter. 
“Lucky” for her, Nina needs her most of the time—she’s bulimic and suffers from a skin-picking disorder, so Erica has to watch her and keep these harmful habits at bay. It’s fair to say that she takes it way too seriously, though: she makes Nina breakfast, helps her get dressed/undressed, constantly questions her whereabouts, and punishes her for bad behaviors. She also tucks her in, if you were wondering. 
Nina’s still 20-ish, but let’s face it, you were over that kind of treatment before you were 14. 
This “special treatment” means Nina goes only goes home from practice, and that’s all. If she does anything outside of this, her phone won’t stop ringing. Or worse, she’ll contribute to a breakdown. 
Worldview: the world is evil. You must protect yourself and who you love at all costs. 

The Perfectionist Director
Thomas Leroy is the mighty director of the sumptuous NYC ballet company where the movie takes place. 
The man is powerful. He loves to play with the feelings of his most hopeful dancers, Nina being one of them. To him, she’s ideal casting for the White Swan part, and only the White Swan. But why?
You see, the reason why he and Nina don’t bond well is this: the last thing he wants to know about is technique, and Nina has a whole lot of that to show him. His concept of perfection takes the form of effortlessness rather than method. 
Before the Black Swan role, you can bet all Nina used to hear was “beautiful as always, Nina” (this is an actual line from her ballet mistress) and similar compliments. She’s frail, sweet, morose; she wears all aspects of a stereotypical ballet dancer. But Thomas wants more. 
Now that a role requires fierceness and ardor, Nina’s at a loss. Precision is all she knows. 
That’s when Thomas opens her eyes: in order to get the Black Swan role, she’ll have to do things she never did, and be someone she never was. She’ll need to “live a little”.
Worldview: perfection is subjective—but it exists, and you must strive for it to reach any level of success in your career. 

The Prima Ballerina
Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is one of Nina’s biggest threats. 
A veteran dancer in the company, Beth is retiring after dancing for years, and she’s not happy about it. After dancing her own starry Swan Queen role in Swan Lake, Thomas needs someone to replace her. 
Everything Beth does comes from a dangerous inner impulse, which makes her transcend when dancing. This makes Nina feel both threatened and amazed because Beth’s intensity is instinctive, not technical—unlike herself, who’s a “frigid little girl”.
Nina tries to be like her in ways that aren’t so smooth: by stealing and wearing her stuff, sneaking into her old dressing room, and even visiting Beth at the hospital after she “gets hit” by a car right after finding out Nina could be her replacement.
Even though Beth is the epitome of perfection, it turns out her impulses aren’t so gentle on her own miserable life. 
Worldview: the world is a place of rivalry. If you can’t be the best, then you’re nothing.

The Bad Girl
Lily is the polar opposite of Nina, and she’s there to teach her there’s nothing wrong with being a baddie.
She’s filling Beth’s old spot, meaning that Nina has another “rival” to conquer, yet this time they’re about the same age. The girl is the apple of Leroy’s eyes, thanks to her imprecise, sexy way of dancing. That’s the exact style he’s seeking for the Black Swan role, which could knock Nina off the spot...unless she works really hard for it. 
For a while, Lily befriends Nina and shows her what she’s been missing: parties, drugs, guys, and all facets of a world Nina isn’t used to exploring. She seems genuinely worried about Nina’s hard work and lack of a social life. But of course, all Nina can think about is rivalry and sabotage. 
It all worsens when Thomas chooses Lily as Nina’s alternate.
Worldview: people will try to do everything to surpass you, no matter how good their intentions may seem. 
As you could see by the descriptions above, Nina is the way she is for reasons beyond herself. The people and events in her daily life were the influences that led to her crucial decisions. 
The key takeaway here is: regardless of your character’s final decision, it’s never one isolated event that builds into it. Their worldview is what shapes them. 
Finally, it turns out that all of those who partook in her journey lent a hand when pushing Nina into the majestic, yet tragic fall that was her life. 

Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

1 comment

  1. Thank you! I’m writing a feature script right now and found this very helpful.