Monday, March 05, 2012

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: Determine Their Default Strategy

Before you write a script, there’s nothing harder than figuring out in advance how each character will talk.  It’s tempting to wait until you’re actually writing and let the characters themselves “speak” to you.  The problem with this is that there’s too much danger that they’ll all use the same voice.

It’s better to ensure beforehand that each character will have a unique voice, but how do you define something that elusive? In previous pieces, I broke the concept down into two qualities:

  • Metaphor Family: some aspect of their life that determines which metaphors, curses and exclamations they use.  This source might be their job, their home region, or their psychological state. 
  • Second is a concept I used to call Verbal DNA, but I’ve now changed the name to Default Personality Trait.  Characters grow and change throughout a story, and their mood can fluctuate wildly, even within each scene, but happy or sad, stunted or enlightened, they’ll still have some aspect of their personality that never changes. 
But is that enough?  I’ve been focused a lot recently on how important it is for characters to trick and trap one another.  Now I realize that, just as it’s important that character use unique metaphors, it’s equally important that they trick and trap each other in distinctive ways.  So now I’m adding a third aspect of voice that should be pre-determined: their Default Strategy
I identified metaphor families using “30 Rock” characters, so for default strategies, let’s look at that show’s Thursday night companion, “Community”, which thankfully returns to the air this week.  Let’s say that you’re withholding a secret from a member of the Greendale study group… How are they likely to try to get it out of you?
  1. Jeff: Traping you with the evidence of your lies in a lawyerly manner.
  2. Abed: Faux naïve questions, noticing little details and psychological “tells”
  3. Annie: Genuine naïve questions, persistently interrogating until she gets the truth.
  4. Troy: Half-heartedly attempting to lay logic traps and trap you with your own words.
  5. Shirley: Passive aggressive guilt-tripping
  6. Britta: Accusing you of hypocrisy, inconsistency, or general lack of morality.   
  7. Pierce: He doesn’t strategize, he just insults.  Not coincidentally, he’s the most unlikable character. 
These strategies tend to have some overlap with metaphor families or default personalities: Jeff, Shirley and Britta have strategies that relate to their backgrounds (lawyer, evangelical, hippie).  Abed’s is related to his psychology (Aspergers).  Annie, Troy and Pierce, on the other hand, use strategies that match up to their default personality traits (sweet, geeky and arrogant, respectively).

In dramas, the characters will be less broadly sketched, but still use distinctive default strategies: silence or verbosity, sexuality or piousness, logic or emotionality... Their default strategy need not be their only strategy, but it’ll be the first one they try.   


j.s. said...

I'd welcome that shift in terminology. I've had trouble in the past understanding what you meant by "Verbal DNA," especially because the expanded description of "Metaphor Family" actually feels to me intuitively more like a definition of something that would be called "Verbal DNA." So I think "Default Personality" would be more clear and more useful now that you can pair it with "Default Strategy."

Since film stories are usually about change and TV characters tend to stay the same, how would you say that the use of Default Strategies differs from big screen to small?

Matt Bird said...

I always had the same problems with "Verbal DNA": it sounds too much like "metaphor family", and it was never inherently obvious what it meant. I'll go back and retroactively make the change to the old pieces soon, I just didn't want to suddenly change terminology without notice and confuse people.

In terms of default strategy on TV vs. movies:

Obviously, as a movie escalates (far more than a TV show does), your character is going to feel pressured to abandon their default strategy for something more bad-ass:

In weak thrillers, every hero ends up turning into Rambo by the end, even if he started as an IT guy. But in smarter thrillers, like "Enemy of the State", for instance, the hero stays truer to his character by sticking closer to his default strategy no matter how bad it gets, rather than suddenly sprouting a talent for fist-fighting or gunplay.

Daniel Smith said...

I'd like to suggest a possible fourth. Are you familiar with the Time Perspectives of Philip Zimbardo? Search for this on Youtube for a brief introduction. It's quite interesting and related to, but not included in, the three mentioned here.