Jul 23

Character Basics

A character is any person or thing with a human personality or trait in your story. Often we talk about the “good guy” vs. the “bad guy” or the “hero” or the “heroin” against the “villain.” Characters are also referred to as “A” and “B” or “C” and so forth. We’re also familiar with the “comic relief” character, the “roommate,” the “BFF”, down to character with just numbers, “cop # 3” or “reporter 5”, etc.
This isn’t really what we mean when we’re talking about character. A true character may be a lot like ol’ Jim, or Uncle Carle, or Grandmother. But to be a true character who will help you with your story you need unique individuals with likes and dislikes, goals and disappointments, unique qualities developed over the course of a life time, even if that life time has been very short by the time we meet the character.
You can find elaborate lists of character question you and go down to help you define your characters and your own style of developing a individual who holds our interest each time he or she appears. There are some writing gurus who will ask you what your character had for breakfast this morning? To me this is a little too much. I understand that my characters only exist for the period of time they are in my story or script and most likely ate New Times Roman, point 12 font size for all three meals.
One of the things I learned from writing my dissertation about the writing of the radio and TV series “GUNSMOKE” was how the writers from co-creator John Meston to those who followed him would often name an episode after the key character of the week. And these names were always outside the ordinary but also memorable.
Over the years I’ve made it a habit of collecting interesting names and I have lists I go back to as well as add to all the time. What I’ve discovered is that once a character has a name, it becomes easier to think of him or her as real and create all the other factors they need to pop off the page and the screen.
There are limits to the value of this, as with anything else. Think of some of the jocks and celebrities whose names are hardly pronounceable to those singing groups whose names are so obscure the leave you scratching your head instead of admiring their cleverness and thoughtfulness. (Some of you will remember when the singer Prince went through the phase when he was using a symbol for a name and calling himself, “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” Eventually he wised up because that took up too much billboard space and disc jockeys had other things to do than take the time to I.D. him in such a convoluted way.)
Another approach is, in effect, to name your characters with such common names that they are “everyman” or “anybody.” John Jones, Betty Smith, and the like.
Still one more point about names. This is usually more important in scripts than in prose but it still applies. Try to use different letters of the alphabet to name your primary or significant characters. Parents may find it cute and neat to have all their children with names that start with the same letter, Collin, Christian, and Calab, but, trust me on this, when your speed reading (as most professional script readers do) you quickly confuse one “C” character with another because you don’t really take the time to read all the character’s name. A much better strategy is to keep an alphabet handy and go to a different letter for your next name.
I’ve spent a lot of time here on naming the key characters. But to truly make a character really round as opposed to flat it’s more important to have characters who are human, meaning that they are flawed. If you have a Superman who is never wrong, makes no mistake, and cannot be defeated by anything (no Kryptonite) then this is a very thin, unrealistic, cardboard character without depth and with nothing to learn. Remember, in a good story the main character is a different person at the end of the story than he/she was at the beginning because they have grown, faced a major fear in their life, and have altered who they are forever by their actions and decisions. A person with nothing to learn, nothing to overcome, nothing to face, makes a poor character, “good guy” or “bad guy.”
What is the one thing in this world your major character does not want to deal with. Make him or her deal with it in spades. Remember Indiana Jones? “Why did it have to be snakes?” It had to be snakes because that’s the one thing he was most afraid of — and it wasn’t just a couple of snakes but hundreds of snakes he had to face.
What is your character’s physical or mental defect? Is he a recovering alcoholic, is she a former hooker, or does this person have an unreasonable fear of fire, water, heights or something else. Think of the TV character Monk.
In your story your character reveals himself and his weakness, although he has done his best to hide from it and keep it from being known by anyone else. That’s what stories do — they reveal character.
So, it behooves you to create characters who are interesting and contradictory in their hiding mechanisms and who they presents themselves to be to the world and in who they becomes once he face his fears.

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