Every human has an inherent nobility and dignity, and it is only in the limits of that dignity that people differ. Some people (the snots) hold themselves to a very high standard, while others (the goofs) appear significantly more relaxed in their approaches to life.
Even within an individual, there may exist multiple levels of dignity befitting the person’s roles or functions throughout the day. As a corporate executive, she may hold herself tightly constrained to maintain her air of authority, while as a doting mother, she may release her inner child for a game of tag.
And yet, even with the role-playing variations of life, each of us has an underlying threshold across we are hard-pressed to pass.
What is true for people is true for the characters we create, or at least should be, I believe. And it is in finding that central sense of dignity that we truly begin to understand these characters.
It is pivotal to their thoughts, actions, words and silences. It is also critical to how they view the world and how the world responds to them.
The goofiest, the most nebbish and most loathsome of characters has a line they will not cross, which writers exploit by presenting each one with a crisis. And while the writer and reader may think of that line as representing different things to different characters—for example, a move from light to dark for the good guys and dark to light for the bad guys—it is important to view the line from the character’s perspectives and aspirations.
Thus, the line is always a move from my light to my dark, my good to my bad, my right to my wrong. To approach it any other way would weaken and potentially two-dimensionalize the character’s resistance to change.
Scar from The Lion King completely believed in the truth and the righteousness of what he was doing. He understood that his actions flew in the face of tradition, but truly believed he was acting for the greater good.
Likewise, the anti-hero Edmond Dantès of the Count of Monte Cristo felt completely justified in his criminal actions because he was removing men worse than himself.
In both cases, as I have said elsewhere, each character was the protagonist of his own story.
In the end, society consumed Scar when he reached his line (i.e., bow to his nephew Simba) and he refused to cross it, and almost consumed Edmond Dantès until he released his anger and found peace.
Regardless of how prominent or fleeting a character, they all have their dignity, and although we may not explore all equally—lest we never complete our works—an awareness of that line will make for amazingly richer and more memorable characters, and thereby, better stories.
Some interesting recent blog posts on character:
Caroline Norrington’s Get to Know Your Character: 15 Minute Character Development Prompter
Persikore’s Context Matters
Richard Ellis Preston Jr.’s Character Development: Finding a Friend for Life