Thursday, May 07, 2020

Podcast Episode 16: Neat Tricks for Creating Compelling Characters

Hi guys! So sorry for being gone so long without an explanation! Things are up in the air and I kept expecting them to settle down so I could start posting again.  They haven’t yet, but they may soon!

In the meantime, here’s a new plague-time podcast episode!  Appropriately enough, James is pitching the value of isolating your characters, as well as five neat tricks all starting with the letter E.  It’s a good one!


Joel W. said...

Another cool episode. At first these a la carte devices seem related to the moment of humanity (side note: the "MoH" is one of my favorite Birdian ideas along with "tricks & traps for dynamic scenes" and "setting the danger/tone/expectations early"). From a quick look at the checklists, it actually seems like the MoH is pretty different. But, on checklists where the MoH is handwaved with stuff like "funny & cracks jokes" or "likeable and we feel pity", perhaps what's really going on is the use of these a la carte devices (tough to say without watching the movie again!).

Around 29 minutes in James mentions watching the hero "enjoy." There's a post somewhere on this blog about how Man of Steel and some new DC movies feel too drab and serious. Did the heroes "enjoy", or "eat", or do something relatable on a *primal* level in those movies? (I never saw them, unfortunately. Actually, fortunately.) They exercise for sure though.

There was a deep idea in this podcast about whether the hero is seen "rising above." Make yourself vulnerable for the greater good. We like that! Don't sell the droid! But don't rise too much or too obviously, because then you're unrelatable, or at worst, pretentious. Come to think of it, the MoH is sometimes a little comically vain moment (falling back down to Earth, not rising).

Also hope you didn't cut out any Rise of Skywalker rants, haha. That movie...well, nevermind.

Anonymous said...

Great show guys.

On Blazing Saddles being the most transgressive film...someone recently commented that they could no longer recommend Young Frankenstein after having seen it again for the first time in decades, due to it having too many 'rapey' jokes that weren't remembered.

Mel Brooks is a genius. And my instinct is to defend his work, but I can't help thinking that if we won't tolerate it today, we shouldn't have tolerated it in 1974 either.

But it's so goddamn funny. Thoughts?

Matt Bird said...

I think of Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution"

Harvey Jerkwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

If we're already being mundane, how about two C's? Cooking and Cleaning.

Cleaning your own (someone else's) property/body and how thorough.

Cooking for yourself/others, and how involved it is. Making a sandwich is different from putting something preheated in the microwave is different from making something from scratch.

And, naturally, cooking could lead to eating could lead to cleaning :)

Matt Bird said...

I'm not sure we would ever identify with a character who is voluntarily cleaning...

McL said...

Great episode!

I remember that Jerry Seinfeld said he couldn't act until he gave himself a bowl of cereal in every scene. You're in good company, Matt.

I think Matt's being factitious, but I second voluntarily cleaning. (obviously involuntarily cleaning is gold too, like scrambling to get the place in order before a person of higher status arrives) But you can relate to cleaning because they are showing devotion to another, whether it's scrubbing the family's dishes, picking up their dog's poop, or a swordmaster wiping their blade before sheathing it. We like to see heroes display their values.

I'm intrigued by the idea of leaving exchanging/capitalism behind in order to move forward and make change in yourself and the world. Is this common in stories from non-capitalist societies? The bookend to this is the return to capitalism at the end I suppose is the important moment too. Like sure the rogue cops risked being fired for following a hunch, but now the baddy is in jail and people can go to the mall again. Or can they not go back, and go off and live on the mountain? How do each the of Es get reflected in the end of the story?

I think about how in video games, it's the opposite with money. You often need to acquire things of value, in order to trade for goods that will help your character save the world (armor, potions, power ups).

Consuming power ups reminds me of a point on eating. Kirk eating an apple is a reference to the first power up, the transgressive fruit of knowledge that breaks us out of our comfortable walls. And eating becomes a relatable trait because breaking bread with people (especially while we're eating popcorn or a snack on the couch) is being invited to their table.

Lots to think about! Makes me glad I put a lot of food in my book but I think I'm going to go change some of the character moments and draw them eating.

Matt Bird said...

Carson over at Scriptshadow has a good post today where he says he bonded with a heroine in a script because she cleaned a coffee spot off her desk: http://scriptshadow.net/how-one-page-in-a-script-let-me-know-it-would-be-great/

Joel W. said...

Hmm, seems like there's shortcut/cynical devices to make us "care" or "invest" (emulation, high 5 a black guy), and then there's shortcut devices to make us "believe" (that cleaning the coffee spot example). Some overlap between these of course. One of the challenges is finding common devices that aren't too specific (aka, cliches). What devices are universal enough to actually be called a la carte shortcuts (emulation, physical activity, and eating seem like the big ones)?

What about the other 4 senses, could it work in the visual medium? Perhaps the hero takes a whiff of the new flowers on the concierge's desk, or they smell last night's dinner trash and repulse. Perhaps the hero listens to music in their bed (careful, what kind of music?), or their alarm goes off. Sight is tough, maybe we get a shot from the hero's POV, like looking at starships through binoculars. Touch...uhhh, getting increasingly specific here, but they could pet a dog ("good with animals" is not really touch though is it), or they slide their fingers across a knife blade, or rub their hands on a wooden table. Seems like a stretch.... After all, eating might not so much have to do with sense of taste itself, but something more empathically primal.

Hey wait a minute, seeing the hero stretch! That might be pretty common. Everyone loves stretching.

Matt Bird said...

Smell is huge in prose (Harry’s babysitter’s house smelling like cabbage, etc.). Nothing makes prose feel more real than using all five senses on the first page. Screenwriters have to rely much more on behavior.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your book. It's much easier to read than others on the topic and the multiple examples really help :)

Anonymous said...

Seeing this made my day. Glad y’all are alive!

Anonymous said...

Great episode! I love your podcast!

Friday said...

This ep really got my wheels turning. I wonder how all these tricks that help an audience identify with a character correlate to psychological techniques used to get people to like you. Emulation is the big one that perhaps encompasses all the others (Mimetic Theory). But to be more specific, there's:

- asking someone a favor or doing a favor for them
- being positive/never complaining despite persecution or unfairness (Suffer in Silence)
- vulnerability: confiding in others, telling a secret, or revealing a flaw
- complimenting others and being complimented
- touching others
- confidence
- being attractive
- etc.

Take the much beloved Back to the Future as an example.

Favors. Opening scene is Marty checking on Doc's place for him. Later, when Doc calls about coming out to the mall, he asks if Marty can first stop by his place and pick up a video camera, which Marty agrees to right away.

People also deeply relate with being misunderstood or unfair treatment, and the first 15 minutes of BTTF are chock full of moments where Marty is unfairly accused. He's late and Strickland gives him hell, though this is partly not his fault. The judges give an unfair assessment of his music. His ride is totaled by Biff in a super unfair situation, yet he seems more concerned about his dad not standing up to his supervisor than the fact that he can't go park with Jennifer now. Largely, he suffers in silence through all of this, only later confiding in Jennifer that maybe the judges were right about his musical prospects.

But he doesn't stay "down" for long, and quickly turns positive by wanting something else: the 4x4 truck, which Marty sees as part of a happy future with Jennifer. I think the yearning and longing that we identify stems from vulnerability. We see something this character genuinely wants but might not get. But he's daring to hope (a phrase I will never forget from Matt's BCI series). Marty also longed to play music in front of a crowd earlier.

And here's more vulnerability: Marty making a mistake when he's alone in the opening scene (blowing up the speaker and knocking the shelf down fooling around). Isn't isolation vulnerability? Similar to telling a secret, but we get to see the secret instead of hear it.

As for crossovers with the five Es, shall we start with eating or breaking bread together? Well, the class first date is dinner (and a...) for a reason. There's psychology to back it up.

Exercise? Also basic psychology. We like people who are fit, or take care of themselves. Or sometimes the exercise comes off as a special skill, as in Marty's skateboarding. And don't we admire others' competence and special abilities?

Enjoy? When people are confident, they look like they're enjoying themselves. We're drawn to people having a good time because we also want to have a good time. I'd put confidence and enjoyment together, because even people who aren't confident usually look that way when they're having fun.

Economic Activity doesn't seem fit neatly with the other points. (Marty does engage in it though, FYI, by donating a few coins to the clock tower fund.)

Anyway, maybe that's why all these tricks should be used a la carte. There are just so many ways to get someone to like you, it would be ridiculous to use every one. That said, BTTF sure packs in a ton.

Now going off to see how each of these fits into the BCI model... lol

Matt Bird said...

Great points! I think suffering in silence is a big one. We always love that. Certainly Harry Potter does it a lot. Jack Reacher. Stanley Yelnats.

One of the worst "you'll love this guy" moments I've ever seen was in the first Andrew Garfield Spider-Man. Peter is sullenly walking down the hall in his high school, when suddenly he puts a skateboard on the floor and tries to skate between the kids to get to class, but the mean old principal accosts him and tells him that's a bad idea. Never have I agreed with a principal more! I think this is the only time in the movie Peter skateboards, they were just like, "He's not cool enough! What's cool? Skateboarding in the halls like Bart Simpson"

CloudAtelier said...

How abour an R for rest. Charcters taking a break and resting. That shows that shows that have limits and are vulnerable. Alos, it's relatable. We all need a break.