Date: 8/16/03

Subject: Character Development

Character Development:


In the film, "Coma"
( ), the protagonist, Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold), is a fiercely independent woman who maintains strict control over her personal life and professional life.

At Boston Memorial, the hospital where she works, she is depicted as one of the few female doctors in the apparently male-dominated medical field of the 1970s.

She immediately begins a relentless investigation when her friend, Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles), goes into a coma at Boston Memorial during a routine abortion operation.

At the beginning of the investigation, Susan's boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), explains her stubborn desire for information about the coma by telling a nurse, "She [Susan] likes to do things her own way."

The most important activity of Susan's personal life, the act of taking a women's aerobics class with Nancy, was also a way for Susan to express herself as an independent woman.

So, when Nancy dies at the hands of the male-dominated surgical staff at Boston Memorial, Susan feels violated and seeks to protect herself from any further violation of her rights as a woman.

Dr. George (Rip Torn), the chief of anesthesia at the hospital, does indeed have very little respect for women doctors.

When Susan discovers that there have been ten unexplained cases of coma at the hospital in "young, healthy patients in the past year," she seeks out the medical files of these patients and is blocked from reading them by Dr. George.

However, being the enterprising, independent woman that she is, Susan gets into the hospital's lab and reads the files, which show that all ten patients were operated on in operating room (O.R.) number eight.

During her investigation, her boyfriend, Mark, treats her as a paranoid who shouldn't step on the toes of the powerful male doctors at the hospital.

The chief of surgery himself, Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), sends her to the hospital psychiatrist as a "pre-condition of her" continued employment at Boston Memorial.

But Susan is not deterred by him. Instead, she tracks the whereabouts of the coma patients from the hospital to the Jefferson Institute, a high-tech, long-term care facility for coma patients.

There, she discovers that the organs of the patients at the institute are being removed and sold to the highest bidder as part of an illegal organ-trading scheme.

When she returns to the hospital, Dr. Harris spikes her drink, giving her drug-induced abdominal cramps. He then schedules her for an immediate appendectomy in O.R. eight.

Realizing that Harris is about to kill her to stop her from exposing his organ-trading scheme, Susan pleads with Mark to stop the operation.

When Harris tells a nurse to prep only O.R. eight for Susan's operation, Mark finally realizes that something is amiss and takes action, cutting the gas line that is feeding deadly carbon monoxide into the anesthesia apparatus in O.R. eight.

Susan's life has been saved. She wakes up after her surgery--something Harris didn't expect.

Two policemen then arrive at the operating room to arrest Harris.

Ultimately, we find that the character of Dr. Susan Wheeler is part of the theme of "Coma." 

The theme is that only by maintaining independence from an institutional system such as a hospital can a person avoid being victimized by that system.

As an extension of that theme, the character of Dr. Susan Wheeler is defined through her point of view. Her point of view is that it is crucial for her to maintain independence in her personal life and in her professional life as a doctor.

So, we see that in "Coma," character and plot are inseparable.

Screenwriters should study "Coma" as an example of how to create a thematically relevant protagonist.

The reason is that "Coma" shows the importance of fully defining the point of view of a protagonist.

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