Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 2: Character

So let’s break down 19 different kinds of quality that every story gets judged on. Every single one of these is the going the very most-est important thing to some reader you encounter somewhere along the line, but totally meaningless to someone else. You have to please them all, if you want a sale.

Let’s start with the most important category: character. (Although there’s a big caveat here: character is the biggest factor that determines whether or not they like your story, but it’s the least important in determining whether or not they read your story. Everyone, from producer down to consumer, selects stories based mostly on plot, but how much they enjoy them is determined by how much they liked the characters.)

But what does the reader mean when they compliment or put down your characters? Remember: they don’t know. They just know if they liked them or not, but they won’t know why. You, with your super-special training, have to ask the right questions to determine which aspect of character creation you either aced or flubbed.

Aspects of Character: (this isn’t every aspect, but these are the top five...)

  1. Sympathy: I talk about this a lot on this blog. It’s important. It’s huge. It’s also something they never mention in film school. (It’s gauche, dontcha know?) Not the same thing as “likability”. Read my Hero Project posts and many more.
  2. Amount of personality: So what’s the difference? This second category isn’t about quality, it’s about quantity. You can send your characters on the most painfully true-to-life journey in the history of fiction, or give them brilliantly incisive wit, or whatever, but it still doesn’t matter if they’re not big enough. Nice or mean, funny or grave, they need to pop. Don’t be afraid to make your character a little over-the-top on the page. A good actor will know to tone it down, and a bad actor will only convey half of the personality you’ve created, so either way, you’ll be covered. Here’s a classic test: read the screenplays without the character names. Can you still tell which character is talking? If not, they need bigger personalities. But keep in mind, the goal is usually to make them big without being overly broad. Indiana Jones has a lot of personality, but he’s still not a broad character.
  3. Uniqueness: “I’ve never met anyone like your character before” isn’t always a compliment. On the other hand, it’s never bad to hear something like: “I’ve met people like this but I’ve never seen one in a movie before.” I’ve known quite a few acid-tongued misanthropic doctors, but I didn’t see a great one onscreen until House. He was totally original but instantly recognizable.
  4. Motivation: This is very, very tough. The audience doesn’t always have to know why every character does everything they do, but you have to know. This is where it’s better to show and don’t tell. I’ve written many posts about it and there will be more to come.
  5. Depth: Very hard to get across on the page. Give the character tough decisions to make and them let surprise us in the end. But don’t let them change quickly—Roll the rock way uphill before you release it. (And don’t mistake murky motivation for character depth—they’re not the same thing!)
Put it all together, and hopefully you’ll end up with a great performance like this:
Dare to dream.

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