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The Art Of Words: Finding The Character

Updated on July 12, 2014

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As we read our favorite books and watch our favorite plays, TV shows and movies, the inherent connections to the material are in the characters and their portrayals of good and bad, right and wrong, yin and yang, and all the gray areas in between. Our belief in those characters is what compels us to keep our attention on the peaks and valleys of their lives. Their triumphs and tragedies resonate with us, and their journeys become our journeys. Getting all the components of a character to work in concert is a fundamental goal of every writer; to make the reader/viewer believe whomever we create are living, breathing, sentient beings worth knowing. Through the centuries there have been countless characters created by countless writers. Which means those countless writers have succeeded in creating the crucial connection between character and audience. Now it's our turn.

The Foundation, or "Where, How, and Why" of a Character

Often (but not always) the premise of our story dictates who our characters will be, i.e. a tense story about a bank robbery will probably have violent criminals; a funny story about kid's daycare will have wild, rambunctious kids and frazzled adults; a thrilling pirate story will have... well, thrilling pirates.

But it starts with an idea, the "I want to write a story about..." impetus. And, whether we realize it or not as we construct the twists and turns of our plot, it all comes down to justifying the existence of each character in the universe we create. How we choose to shed light on our characters directly affects our audience's reaction to them. If we know the reason why a character(s) is the focus of the whole story, or only appearing in one scene, we are already on the path to defining what that character is about: Who are they? What do they want? Why do they need it? Do they get what they want? Why, or why not? What are the ramifications of them achieving (or not achieving) their goals? How does it affect other characters in the story? How do these actions affect the resolution? And so on. The process of character development takes time and patience, attributes that can be in short supply, especially when you're facing a tight deadline. But many writers believe a story isn't created until it's been re-written at least ten times, which means the characters are constantly molded and recreated in the process; their subtleties, nuances,and flaws re-shaped and perfected until, finally, the characters "live and breathe".

If we look at Greek mythology, Aesop's fables, etc., we see that many of these stories possess the same attributes of modern storytelling: a hero, a villain, and their trials and triumphs to attain their goals. The only real difference between now and then is in the presentation. What does that mean? That the Greeks (and, to be fair, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptians, and others) figured out story mechanics over 2000 years ago. It means that the basics, or foundation, of storytelling hasn't really changed all that much, and the Greeks knew that if audiences didn't identify with their characters, no one would pay attention to their morality plays and fables. The Greeks employed some of the greatest tools a writer has: character dynamics, which are the personality traits that dictate a character's actions. Going all the way back to Aristotle's Poetics, the fundamental groundwork of just about every story (and every character) ever written is laid out, and we discern that "action is character, character is action". Why do I mention the Greeks' approach? Because the Greeks laid out the path. There's no need to "re-invent the wheel" when it comes to creating character; the method already exists. What we can do is modify the "wheel", and create characters that relate to our modern world.

Some writers use a character attribute list, or "personality tree". It's simply a short outline of a character's personality. It might go something like:

Character "1" - the Protag.

A traits: smart, selfless, reactionary

B traits: contemplative, distant, loner

C traits: insecure, slightly arrogant, cynical

Character "2" - the Antag

A traits: driven, cunning, ruthless

B traits: witty, educated, calculating

C traits: insecure, petty, bitter

Each trait list is a "layer" to your character. The trait lists are a well to draw from when creating your character's actions and reactions. While the above lists are short examples, you can add as many traits to the list as you want, and rearrange the traits to best reflect the character you want to create. (If there are any words of caution I would have for using the trait list, it would be this: only use high value personality traits. What does high value mean, in this situation? It means no matter how many traits you list for your character, only keep those which you truly believe reflect the character you want to portray. Overloading your list with every trait you can think of gives rise to the possibility that your character will become diluted, convoluted, or even lost, in a deluge of choices.)

You may have noticed that the Protag and Antag above share the "insecure" trait. Shared traits are perfectly legitimate when creating character relationships, and add a kindred spirit dimension which may result in complications in the resolution.

You can add notes to reflect why a character has a certain trait. If we take the "driven" trait from the Antag list we might make a simple note about what drives the Antag into their actions:

A traits: driven (revenge for father's death), cunning, ruthless

Now we have a reminder of why the Antag feels the way they do. And, again, the notes can be as detailed as you feel is necessary.

How Come the Character in My Head Isn't on the Page?

Great characters don't just happen. They aren't written in five minutes, and if they are they won't resonate for a lifetime. Like people in real life, characters must evolve and grow (aka the "character arc"). They need to have ups and downs, and learn (or not learn, depending on your story) from their mistakes, even if their learning curve is painfully slow. We now know the more we develop our characters the more we get to understand them and furnish them with a better realized world to inhabit. Let's look at some examples:

Rocky - One of the most beloved screen characters of all time. Why? Because he's portrayed by Sylvester Stallone as a real person whom we can identify with: he looks for meaning in his life, and finds it with Adrian; he has a big heart and, though he's street tough, shares his heart with the people closest to him; he's a bit naive, not always understanding how the world works; he's pragmatic, knowing that he's only a club fighter who's far out-classed by champ Apollo Creed, which is why Rocky refuses to fight (at first); he's determined, and comes to realize this fight is his shot at redemption, then shows not only Adrian, Apollo, and himself, but the whole world that he's got what it takes to go the distance with the champ (the 15th and final round).

Erin Brockovich - Another great portrayal. If we go down the list of her character attributes we find she is: smart, determined, desperate, cynical, loyal, loving, scared, rude, fierce, noble, confrontational, stubborn and a born crusader. That's a lot for Julia Roberts to pack into one performance, and she did it beautifully.

Death Of A Salesman - Willy Loman is the quintessential tragic hero. His life is rendered almost meaningless. His job leaves him feeling unfulfilled and unsuccessful. His family life is something less than ideal. Willy is depressed, remorseful, delusional, insecure, foolhardy and, ultimately, suicidal (Willy's justification of his suicide is only an excuse for him to escape his life). He tries desperately to hold onto the last shreds of self-respect and dignity through daydreams of an affair from the past. Willy walks a line between reality and despair that is both relatable and heartbreaking.

Breaking Bad - Walter White is a different tragic hero. He has something to live for: his family. He's a nice, average man pushed to extremes by his circumstances (cancer, lack of funds for medical care), and reacts in an extreme way (by being a ruthless meth dealer). Walter redefines who he is for the course of the entire series and, as portrayed to near perfection by Bryan Cranston, discovers his dark side is his greatest asset, his personal demons his greatest allies. Walter is in turns a loving husband/father and a tortured soul, put through an emotional ringer largely by his own doing. By the end we feel that Walter has masterminded his tragic path for the sake of his family, and exits this life on his own terms.

Epilogue

As we've seen, there are many ways to communicate character to your audience. And really knowing who your characters are is the best way to get them out of your head and onto the page. There is no wrong method to develop characters, unless your method isn't getting the results that you want. Development takes time and experimentation. That being said, the process isn't the same for everybody. Some writers have a natural gift for character, and the personality components come along quickly. But I truly believe we should give the characters a chance to "tell" us who they are and what they want. Let the characters gestate and grow. You'll be surprised by the results.

These are just my opinions, do with them what you will. Best of luck.

A few quotes:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple - Jack Kerouac

Don't give people what they want, give them what they need - Joss Whedon

The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do - Thomas Jefferson

You can fix anything but a blank page - Nora Roberts

Learn the rules like a pro, and break them like an artist - Pablo Picasso

A few links:

Writer's Guild - www.wga.org - register your work

Writer's Store - www.writersstore.com - books, dvd's, seminars, software

Simply Scripts - www.simplyscripts.com - produced and unproduced scripts

Script - www.scriptmag.com - all about writing

WordPlay - www.wordplayer.com - web site of writers Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot

The Script Mentor - www.thescriptmentor.com - script coverage

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    • Snackula profile image
      Author

      Charlie Dalrymple 3 years ago

      I'm glad everyone is enjoying this article. Thank you for reading.

    • profile image

      chrischance 3 years ago

      Thank you for that.

      Your 'Personality tree' is something I find useful and will now start using this list of traits for my characters; I write by the seat of my pants regarding characters, simply because of my life experiences.

      Writers are learning all the time; this page adds to the learning curve, be it for screenwriting or for novels.

      Many thanks,

      Chris Chance.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Really interesting article here Charlie - thank you for sharing your experience. I especially like Jack Kerouac's words - so applicable to how I feel right now about writing!

    • Snackula profile image
      Author

      Charlie Dalrymple 3 years ago

      Thanks for reading it, Jpcmc.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 3 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      I've read books with great stories. but what makes them come to life are the characters. And of course I've read really bad ones as well. Oh well, some have it others don't.