The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Creating good characters

A few years ago a Wisconsin-based film production company named RedLetterMedia started a series of hour plus long reviews on the Star Wars prequels. The purpose of these reviews was to carefully dissect what went wrong with these three films and the filmmakers went to a lot of effort to create a detailed analysis. It's not only an interesting exercise for someone in filmmaking, but it also touches on a number of issues relating to storytelling in general. For one, in the Phantom Menace Review the narrator, Mr. Plinkett, analyzes what it is about the characters from that movie that make them so dull. He asks people to try to describe the characters "without saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore or what their profession or role in the movie was," as if you're describing them to someone who hasn't seen the movie. In short describe everything about the characters that makes them unique as a character. When you engage in this exercise, you find that people have trouble describing characters that aren't well drawn, whereas they have lots to say about characters that are well drawn.

This makes for a good writing exercise. Try and describe characters from stories you've written. Better yet have others read the stories and have them describe them. This latter can be helpful for identifying when it is that a particular characteristic that you were trying to convey wasn't memorable or highly noticeable. You can see this for example with the Phantom Menace, where Lucas clearly makes some effort to make Qui-Gon Jinn appear to be a rebel who doesn't bow to authority, but it doesn't really stick with audiences because the character development mostly consists of other characters describing him as a rebel, and doesn't actually involve him doing particularly rebellious things. We can starkly contrast this to the character of Han Solo from the original series. Even from his first introduction his character is clearly portrayed this way. They meet him in a bar described as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy," where he's willing to smuggle passengers, where he shoots Greedo, making a clever quip as he leaves. And this is just in the first few minutes of meeting his character. In fact, we should never underestimate the importance of a character's initial introduction to the reader in solidifying the unique characteristics of your character in the minds of the reader.

Now, what particular details make a character compelling? The Writer's Digest has a nice little article on How to Craft Compelling Characters, which opens by describing four main elements of a good character: ambition, secret, contradiction, vulnerability. It's a good list. I personally would quibble and say that it's really ambition (give your character driving goal or a dream or need) and vulnerability that are the most important and that a secret (an important something hidden) and a contradiction (having multiple characteristics that contradict on another) are potent but inessential. Additionally, we might also expand this list, such as the importance of giving characters small flaws people can relate to, giving them memorable idiosyncrasies, making them dynamic (they are changed by events) and so on, but I think this gets to the core of important elements of good characterization.

Such a list is a useful lens to help us further evaluate and improve characters from our own stories. For example, none of the characters in Phantom Menace have any defining ambition and they're not portrayed as fairly vulnerable. Sure, they're trying to achieve certain ends throughout the film, but they aren't portrayed as being really driven by a defining goal. Their goals are really just a function of the situation. It can also help us understand that classic saw of literary criticism, why the character of Satan in Paradise Lost is vastly more interesting than the character of Adam. The most important reasons are that Satan has an ambitious goal (he wants to mar God's new creation) and he is vulnerable (he's distinctly weaker than God, has been defeated by Him once, and is going up against Him again).

It goes without saying that the more originality you can put into developing these characteristics, the more memorable they'll be. Nonetheless, these are good starting points to helping you evaluate and improve your characters, and it's good to try to employ these exercises to improve a story.

No comments:

Post a Comment