When we create stories, we try to come up with truly amazing characters; characters that will resonate in our audience’s memory, long after they’ve finished with our story. Unfortunately, what usually happens is we end up with characters that flatten on the page, becoming two-dimensional versions of our goal. The character may flare momentarily when their plot becomes particularly exciting, but for the most part, they are lifeless and have no depth.
Like subtext in our dialogue, so much that makes a character real has nothing to do with what they are saying or doing. It’s the intangibles, the subtleties that inform their speech and actions.
Would Darth Vader, for example, have been nearly as imposing without the emphysema? What would you think of Forrest Gump without his omnipresent blankness?
Years ago, in an improv class, we did an exercise in character when the instructor told us to endow our character with some physical attribute, but not to share that attribute with others, whether verbally or by incorporating it into the scene. Let the attribute impact your character and see what happens was the request.
I decided that my character’s left foot caused him excruciating pain every time he took a step. As the scene unfolded and my character found it necessary to move, I found that my sentences grew shorter, more clipped, and my patience with people wore thin. Requests to come look at this or hand me that were met with general reluctance and irritation. Everything about my character screamed leave me alone.
I did not wince when I walked. I did not massage my foot while seated. I did my level best to give no outward sense of what was wrong.
When the instructor surveyed the other students, both within the scene and watching, about what our various attributes were, none of us really knew. All they could say was that my character was very angry and a bit of an asshole.
When told I had an extremely painful foot, it was obvious. And please realize, I am NOT an actor. This was not about my Oscar-worthy performance.
But it does show that by making a very small choice about a character, a choice that has nothing to do with plot, you can significantly inform that character and how he or she interacts with others and his or her environment.
When I worked on my first screenplay, I looked for something that affirmed how cool a customer my antagonist was. I wanted something subtle that would indicate he had the ultimate confidence in himself and his manifest destiny. Something that said I have all the time in the world because the world will wait for me.
It was my last point that settled it for me. My character would never use contractions in his speech. From his perspective, every word he uttered was important, was specifically chosen for maximum impact and so why would he remove any of the letters. And because his destiny was your destiny, you would sit patiently and absorb everything he had to say, no matter how long it took.
Now the average reader or movie goer may never consciously notice this, but for many, they’ll experience the malevolent calm of the character.
And perhaps more importantly, as with the sore foot in the previous example, the contraction-free speech informed how I wrote the character. It forced me to slow down as I wrote his dialogue, to consider each and every word he spoke, to ensure they fit the creature I had created. Ironically, that I the writer served him the way he would expect to be served.
Based on the reader feedback to date, it is working.
Look at the characters you’ve created and ask yourself what physical tic, affectation or neurosis informs their lives. If you can’t identify one, can you introduce one to increase the depth of the character or heighten his or her reactions?
Even if it only helps you to better understand and write your character, the exercise will have been worth it.
(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, because I didn’t eel like asking.)