Monday, February 07, 2011

How To Create A Compelling Character, Step 1: Estabish Their Public Identity

Brand-new content is sold to the public, initially, on the basis of the story hook. The public will scan the book jacket or DVD box or whatever and decide whether or not they want to buy it based on how interesting the story seems to be. But after they buy it, and start to consume it, their criteria instantly shifts. They forget all about how interesting your story once seemed to them. Now they only care about one thing: the characters. The story hook determines whether or not they’ll buy it, but the characters determine whether or not they buy in. And if they don’t buy in, you’ve lost them, and they’ve lost their money.

One of the first questions I asked on this blog is how this could be true. Movie tickets are non-refundable, and few people walk out. They’ve spent $5-$15 dollars and they’re now trapped in a dark theater with nothing to do but watch your character. Why on Earth would they choose not to care? Because caring is emotionally hazardous. They’ve already discovered, from real life and from getting invested in other stories, that caring about those who care about themselves is very rewarding, but caring about those who won’t life a finger in their own self-interest is painful and unnecessary. They’d rather lose the $15 and two hours of their life.

I think there are eleven key components that make a character compelling. The audience must…
  1. Recognize your hero’s characterization.
  2. Care about your hero’s inner life.
  3. Understand your hero’s quirks.
  4. Believe in your hero’s personality.
  5. Identify with your hero’s fear.
  6. Agonize over your hero’s dilemma.
  7. Accept your hero’s authority.
  8. Follow your hero’s pursuit of goals.
  9. Sympathize with your hero’s shift in philosophy
  10. Trust your hero’s resourcefulness.
  11. Anticipate your hero’s deadline.
Many of these are loaded words, and it may sound like I’m saying a hero must be a do-gooder. I’m not. There’s one big quality missing from the list: none of these qualities require that audience approve of your hero. In fact, it’s perfectly okay if they despise your hero. As long as they are compelled to find out what happens.

The First Step: Establish Their Characterization. 
Characterization is what your character seems to be to the world. It must contrast with their inner life. Compelling characters are never exactly who they seem to be. The gaps between the two are the character’s contradictions. The more contradictions, the better.

Now just because you’re going to build a rich inner life for your character, one which contrasts nicely with their characterization, you may think that their surface characterization is therefore allowed to be blandly generic. “Sure, this character seems like a million characters you’ve seen before, but wait until you really get to know them!” This is a mistake. Their inner character may be unique and the way it contradicts their characterization may be compelling, but their surface characterization must also be unique and compelling in its own rite.

In a novel, we can get to know to a character’s inner life before we discover how the world characterizes them, but in a movie it is almost always the other way around. Their interactions are immediately obvious to us, but their inner life (without a voice-over) only becomes clear when we see how certain behaviors and conversations contradict others. Do you think that the audience wants to wait until those contradictions manifest themselves to take an interest in your character? If the character seems like a cliché at first, you may have already lost the audience before you have a chance to upset their expectations.

Your character must transcend cliché with the very first lines that leave their mouths. You’re not trying to defy expectations yet. You’re doing the opposite, you’re creating expectations, which is harder. You’re showing their surface characterization, but you’re doing it in a non-clichéd way. The key here is to portray unique-but-universal character traits. You’re establishing the type of character they are by showing behavior that is somehow recognizable even though the audience has never quite seen it before.

Most often, you want this behavior to emerge from your research. If you’re writing about a doctor, and all you’ve ever seen of doctors is what they do in other TV shows, then it will be impossible to come up with unique-but-universal behavior to characterize them. Every behavior you come up with will either be overly familiar (they do that on TV!) or false (you just made that up!). But spend an hour with an actual doctor, or just read a memoir, and you’ll note dozens of little behaviors that will make you think, “A-ha! I didn’t know that doctors did that but it makes total sense that they would!”
“ER” creator Michael Crichton was a doctor, which is how he knew about them dosing themselves with saline drip to get ready for work. David Simon was a cophouse journalist, which is how he knew about detectives’ ability to have an entire conversation using twenty different variations of the word “fuck”. Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, knew nothing about programming, but he did some research and tracked down the actual blog entries that Mark Zuckerberg wrote while creating the proto-version of Facebook, complete with misogynistic ranting, then translated that into compelling dialogue.
If the audience finds your hero’s surface behavior compelling, then you’ve already got a big leg up. To get them to really care, however, you must soon contrast their characterization with their true character, which we’ll cover tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I adore that "fuck" scene from THE WIRE. In a way, part of what you're saying here is that at some basic yet important level every story is a procedural. (Even a rom-com or a story of angsty teens.) That you need to find a original way into the world of all of your characters and the best way to do that is research. There's hanging out with real cops, reading cop memoirs, but then I think there's a another valid way to do it too: transposing real-life, reading, second-handed or imagined experiences from one kind of professional character to another. If you can do this believably, say, take a character trait from your officer manager and graft it onto a police chief, what difference does it make?

Matt Bird said...

Well... I think it won't be as good. When I move on to talk about other steps (revealing inner character, choosing their dialogue) THEN you can raid your own history and transpose traits to your heart's content...

But for characterization, you have to show you know the world of your character's public persona. If their identity is based on their profession, it's alway better to provide some original details specific to that profession. On the other hand, if their public persona is "mom" or "student", then you can raid your own past...

...But even then, when Joss Whedon introduced Buffy, he couldn't just use details from his own British boarding school teenage memories, he had to find out what kids were actually saying and doing in 1997 Southern California.

Anonymous said...

Matt, thanks for clarifying. But I still disagree a little. The saline drip detail is exactly the sort of professional procedural touch you're talking about. You couldn't get that from anyone but a real doctor, though I suppose you could get it from someone who wasn't necessarily an inner city ER doctor.

But THE WIRE's "fuck" scene is one part observation, one part stylization (Simon never actually saw an extended exchange of only f-bombs like the one in the series--he just imagined there could be one). And it's entirely possible he could have observed such a conversation initially among dockworkers, GIs or even fellow reporters and shifted it to what he knew to be an equally profane professional scene. What matters to me is that the I get to the place in my own writing and in the books/films I love where I can say of a procedural detail: "If this isn't true, it _ought_ to be."

Because if you're only relying on research even for the surface characterization you run into all sorts of problems with genres like period pieces (we have almost no records of some eras, and incomplete ones at best of others), spy stories (there are plenty of books and interviews, but much of the best detail is secret and will remain so) and science fiction (no one's ever actually been the commander of a Battlestar).

Matt Bird said...

In general, I concede, it can be done, and your standard of "If this isn't true, it _ought_ to be." is a good one.

...but I think each of your examples could go either way... The characterizations on BSG and many of the early plots were taken directly from their extensive research about life on American aircraft carriers, as they describe in the commentaries.

As for spies, the pilot I script I mentioned on Monday was about spies and I found dozens of tell-all memoirs wherein spies admit to all sorts of jaw-dropping, self-deprecatory stuff, which I happily borrowed to characterize my characters.

As for the ancient past, well, we have memoirs going back to before Caesar to draw from. Before that, it becomes pretty much impossible to write it. I'm reminded of Hawks's explanation of the failure of "Land of the Pharaohs", which he directed from a script by William Faulkner: "I don't know how a pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn't know. None of us knew."