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The Character Creation
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A few years ago a question occurred to me that stopped me cold.
"How do you show that a character is multi-dimensional without writing something that's out of character?"
You know when you watch a movie and a character does something so out-of-the-blue bizarre that you say to yourself:
"So-and-so would NEVER do that! Why would he leave the ransom note out in the open? Why would she run upstairs instead of out of the house, screaming? Why would the wise old Yoda allow Obi-Wan to train Annakin when Yoda has already predicted this kid is the bad apple prophesied to throw the Force out of whack??"
Sometimes a character behaves so irrationally that we, the audience, instantly check out of the story. On the other hand, one of the most common notes a script gets goes something like this:"The main character is a bland, cardboard cut-out, lacking depth and dimension. His actions and reactions are predictable and boring. In fact, the character is so sterile that nothing he does warrants any interest or investment." This may sound like a biting critique, but it's actually standard fare on most screenplay coverage. So the writer faces a kind of paradox: Creating a character whose behavior is simultaneously consistent and unpredictable. When this is achieved it creates TENSION in the audience's mind between the known and the unknown and strikes a key ingredient of human nature: the dual desire for safety adventure. This tension is engaging. It grabs the audience's attention. It's part of what keeps an audience "on the edge of their seats".
All well and good. But how to create such a character?
The first thing we need to consider is our definition of the word"character". The word is constantly thrown around, yet is never broken down and explored. Of course we automatically know when we say "character" we mean a fictional person in our story. But this is only a surface understanding - a weak abstraction we use so our minds can rush on to the next thing.
Question for you:
Have you ever heard somebody say: "That person is such a character?"
Yeah, sure, of course you have. Right?
Intuitively we know this means said person is distinctive. Stands out. Is larger than life. Stirs our emotions with their presence. Doesn't follow the social norms of a situation. Lives spontaneously according to their own inner makeup. Their speech and behavior creates an engaging TENSION in everyone around them.
Kind of sounds like a movie character, doesn't it?
And said real life "character" could be somebody funny or weird or mean or bossy or gentle or cerebral...the list is endless. The point is this: When we say "That person is such a character" what we really mean is: "That person is such a personality." So it goes for a movie character. A compelling movie character is simply a compelling personality. The difference in word choice is Grand-Canyon-gigantic.
Because the word "character" is amorphous. It can refer to several different things. A person could have a virtuous character. A letter is a symbolic character for communication. An actor can play a character in a Broadway play.
"Personality", on the other hand, has a solid meaning. One that perfectly satisfies the ingredients of a compelling movie "character". The definition I find the most useful is this:
A personality is a behavioral system of consistently irrational actions and reactions inside human beings. What does this mean, exactly. First, it means that most of the time we humans do not make decisions based on reason. We make decisions (how to act or react) based on feelings. Only in retrospect do we look back and rationalizes our behavior. This allows us to feel in control of ourselves, even though the majority of the time we are not. It also means that while our behavior may objectively appear inconsistent with reality (i.e. irrational), subjectively it is perfectly consistent with our inner makeup, or our personality.
Maybe you've heard of The Enneagram - the mind-blowing diagram of the 9 essential personality types. This thing is FREAKY accurate. When I first read it, it was like somebody spent five years living inside my brain then wrote a book about my inner life. The way The Enneagram works is that it defines the 9 basic personality types in humans then breaks each down into their Healthy, Average and Unhealthy forms. We constantly fluctuate between these three stages of personality, which explains our seemingly inconsistent behavior.
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