The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola – The Characters

This page is an abstract from our full analysis of The Godfather, one of the most appreciated movies ever and a masterwork of scriptwriting.

Movie Analysis - The Godfather

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Counting of the actantial roles

The number of actantial roles in The Godfather depends on interpretation. Another story analyst might find a different numbers of plots, characters and roles.

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain the specific role of a character (for example, let us think back to Tessio and Carlo, who do not know their Mentor Barzini has been killed by Michael. So, is Barzini a Mentor or not a Mentor?) Sometimes, a character plays a role but we don‘t even know his name and the role appears to be a very small one: Does this anonymous and seemingly unnecessary role count as much as one of the main characters? For example, the driver of Sollozzo in Michael vs. Sollozzo/McCluskey plays an actantial role for no more than 5 seconds.

Fredo is another special case. We will eventually have enough elements to understand that he was for sure allied with Barzini in The Godfather II.

Furthermore, as clear as we are on Barzini‘s status as an Antagonist, is he still considered an Antagonist when everyone around him fails to identify him as such? This is subject to interpretation. If your interpretation differs from ours, it is normal. Storytelling is a subjective science.

That said, we can nevertheless evaluate the number of actantial roles used in the 27 plots of The Godfather, to around 100.

(We count 1 role when the character acts as a collective, for example „the Five Families“ or „the killers of Sollozzo sent to the hospital guarded by Michael“, but we count 2 roles for some plural roles, like for example when Tattaglia and Barzini are both implicitly Mentors.)

Those 100 actantial roles are attributed to a much more restricted number of characters, among which some of them cumulate roles:

  • Michael, 15 roles. 10 times Hero, 5 times Mentor.
  • Vito, 10 roles. 2 times Hero, 5 times Mentor, 3 times Helper.
  • Barzini, 9 roles. 8 times Mentor, 1 time Antagonist.
  • Tattaglia, 8 roles. 7 times Mentor, 1 time Antagonist.
  • Sollozzo, 5 roles. 4 times Hero, 1 time Mentor of the Antagonist.
  • Tom Hagen, 5 roles. 2 times Hero, 1 time Helper, 2 times Skeptic of the Hero.
  • Clemenza, 5 roles. 1 time Hero, 3 times Helper, 1 time Skeptic of the Hero.
  • Sonny, 4 roles. 3 times Hero, 1 time Skeptic.
  • Woltz, 2 roles. 2 times Antagonist.
  • Moe Greene, 2 roles. 2 times Antagonist.
  • Kay, 2 roles. 2 times Antagonist.
  • Carlo, 2 roles. 2 times Antagonist.
  • Connie, 2 roles. 2 times Skeptic of the Hero.
  • Fredo, 2 roles. 1 time Skeptic 1 time Helper of the Antagonist
  • McCluskey, 2 roles. 1 time Antagonist, 1 time Helper of the Antagonist.

Finally, there are several characters who play only 1 unique role, and characters without any actantial role: passers-by, mute witnesses, anonymous and inactive guards in various scenes. Only think about the marriage segments (Carlo‘s marriage to Connie and Michael‘s to Apollonia), these segments no doubt represent more than one hundred people, who play no actantial roles in any of the plots. The scene action needs them to look natural, yet the characters need no detailed dramatic work.

Analysis of the actantial roles

This counting of the roles clearly shows the domination of the character of Michael in terms of action, followed closely by his father Vito, then by their 3 successive Antagonists.

Not only does Michael accumulate many roles, but his roles are always major roles: Hero or Mentor, master of the action.

This is a lesson for writers in all genres: by giving a character a dominant, central position, we can allocate him/her some essential roles, and automatically this character will look special and more important than all of the others.

On their own, the 8 most important characters (Michael, Vito, Barzini, Tattaglia, Sollozzo, Hagen, Clemenza and Sonny) cumulate 61 roles, that is more than half of all the actantial roles!

On the contrary, the 24 less important characters gather only around 40 roles.

Here too we can learn something: a good story creates a strong hierarchy among its characters, the attribution of many roles to a fistful of characters guarantees the density and the coherence of the action and prevents the attention to scatter, whereas the allocation of roles to many secondary characters, ensures the realism, diversity and richness of the artistic work.

Let‘s come closer to some of our sometimes surprising results:

  • With only 4 roles, Sonny appears like a rather secondary character, thematically major (he is one of the 3 Godfathers!) he is still actantially minor. So is his incompetence as Godfather made obvious: he would be in position to take an actantial importance that will actually be assumed by Michael.
  • The same can be said for Kay. There is a similar gap between her important thematic role as „wife of the main Hero“ and her minor actantial role.
  • It is far worse with Apollonia who is given only a very minor role as a Helper of Michael. A simple object of desire, she nearly does not participate, dramatically speaking, in the plot that marries her off and then kills her…
  • Among the Corleone clan, Connie, Carlo and Fredo appear as the most neglected ones. All the three of them together cumulate only 6 roles, all negative: Carlo 2 times Antagonist (against Sonny then against Michael), Connie 2 times Skeptic (against the sames Heroes), and Fredo 1 time Skeptic 1 time Helper of the Antagonist. Here, their actantial roles come to perfectly confirm their thematic roles of traitors, of enemies within.

On the side of the Antagonists, we can observe several remarkable effects:

  • It‘s a good idea to make an Antagonist – Sollozzo – pass from the first plan to the second plan, by injecting some new and more powerful Antagonists – Tattaglia and above all Barzini. It‘s like an actantial crescendo, raising the threat, thus raising tension and suspense.
  • The nearly permanent withdrawal of the main Antagonists stands as a genius feature that allows to generate a deep, thrilling tension since those Antagonists stay hidden and invisible and act nearly always only through other characters. The same technique is a classic pattern in horror movies to make us fear something we can not see.
  • Indeed, neither Tattaglia nor Barzini play any positive role of Hero or Helper, and we never see them act, give commands, receive information, debate a plan, or prepare an attack. We are confronted to them directly only when Michael has sent his killers to eliminate them. And yet, they were there constantly, as invisible as they were powerful, involved in at least 8 of the 27 plots of the movie. It‘s Barzini, Vito says after the fact, who necessarily validated the murder attempt on him, and who covered the murder of Sonny. It‘s Barzini again, and/or Tattaglia, who tried to assassinate Michael and killed Apollonia instead. Here, hiding the strongest Antagonist allowed the story to maintain its tension, whereas a contrary strategy that would have shown him acting, would have killed the mystery and the suspense, by giving us too much information.

Conclusion for us authors: it‘s really better to employ a technique similar to that of Michael and Barzini: hide your game for a long time, then suddenly strike.

Examining the relationship between thematic roles and actantial roles, here, The Godfather offers few surprises.

  • The main characters, the duo Vito/Michael and the trio Sollozzo/Tattaglia/Barzini, have roles of Hero, Antagonists, and Mentors, that perfectly match their identity of mafia bosses, deciding and acting.
  • Their men and their allied co-conspirators naturally receive roles of Hero, Helpers, and Antagonists.
  • Apart from them, very few characters are other than killers.
  • Only 4 minor characters justify their presence by taking roles in love affairs: the mistress of Sonny, Connie, Apollonia, and Kay.

Did you enjoy it? Want to know more? Then read the full script analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and improve your scriptwriting skills

Movie Analysis - The Godfather

PDF, 89 pages