December 22, 2003

building character

I've been thinking about character a lot. What goes into character. How to build a strong character. The slippery slope inherent in the very concept of character.

On the page, that is.

Main characters, while not necessarily easy to pull off, do at least offer larger canvases. You the reader and therefore you the writer spend a lot of time with these people. Many opportunities to get to know all their foibles, fears, and fantasies. There's time too to build insecurities, conundrums, thoughts of past and future, attitudes and idiosyncrasies.

Secondary characters, though, the ones who trot on stage for a scene or two, leave again to live their own lives in their own book somewhere, trot back to support or undercut or add credibility or counterpoint to the main character. They're tricky. You don't have much time, you don't get that close. How do you the writer build someone believable, someone interesting, someone three dimensional?

A screenwriter I know once said what you need to do is give them quirks. An affected limp, a Chihuahua fetish, a habit of chewing gum and sticking it on any available surface (preferably one that will later get the hero or heroine in trouble). He said that's all you really need. One or two memorable bits of personality, maybe three if they appear onscreen a lot.

That's one way to do it. Not a good way. Sufficient for action adventures or broad comedies. Maybe it works for screenplays in the sense that you can trust an actor to take the quirky bits and do enough homework to flesh something interesting out of not a whole lot (see Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean for an amazing example of this). But a quirk does not make a person. And for fiction, where there is no actor to swoop in and plug the leaks in your writerly flourishes, you have to do better.

The problem, I've found, is that you can come up with a reasonable facsimile of character by assembling some attitudes and interesting life events, but what ends up happening is that you don't have enough time to develop said events in this glorified walk-on role, and thus you get a single note played again and yet again, making the character more of a characteristic.

I now think the answer may lie in contradiction. If I say one thing and do another, I'm instantly more intriguing. If I do something that you interpret one way: "she's so sweet for thinking of me with this diamond necklace" and then you find out the real motivation and it changes your opinion: "she just wanted to make sure I was looking down when she snuck that Chihuahua past security in her coat", well, I've got something else going on. This is maybe not the best example, because it too is simplistic (not to mention over the top). But you get the idea. And two or three contradictions are better than one. Two or three layers of shifting meaning or just shifting reaction. ("She was nice to me yesterday but now she's being kind of a bitch. Oh, she had a bad fight with her Chihuahua and now she's mad at the world and taking it out on me. Oh look, now she's giving her Chihuahua to the pound. Boy, she must really be mad. Oh look, she's crying. Awww. She does care. Shes just seriously fucked up.") You can start to build a sliver of a real person that way in not very much story real estate.

I'm still thinking it over. Im not sure this is enough by itself, but it's a start at getting a conceptual handle on something that's normally more intuition and experimentation. Making a person come alive on the page. Not as easy as taking a photograph and sticking it into a scrapbook. I think it's more like the art of a great caricaturist, someone who can, with just a few pen strokes, a slithery line here and a scribble there, can define a face so clearly you'd recognize the person depicted therein if you walked by her on the street. This mole here, that downturn to the outsides of the eyes, that spread of nostrils, that curve of cheek and chin. Its about capturing individuality.

Posted by Tamar at December 22, 2003 11:13 AM