All About Character

The characters described in wild words are multi-layered. They have emotional, and psychological depth. Unique and believable, they skitter across the page, and leap off the tongue. The listener or reader identifies with those things that make us all human- common emotions, hopes and fears. They are intrigued by how the characters differ from themselves. The cast of characters work together like an orchestra, each taking a necessary and distinctive role in the plot.  Their voices, language, appearance, posture and mannerisms are symbols, conveying in solid and show-able ways, their inner worlds.

When wild words speak, they do so directly, rather than their words being reported. To report what someone has said in the past, rather than hearing it straight from their own mouth, is almost always weaker.  Characters’ voices are as varied as the species of animals on earth. Their emotional words and habit patterns are revealed through how and when they speak.  

Tracking The Wild Words

So, what is character…? Answer this question for yourself, before reading on.

I’m sure there are many valid answers out there. Here are the most relevant and useful answers for our purposes:

-Character is habit. Don’t try and stuff individuality into every appearance of your character. Instead, focus on setting up small habits that are repeated. This will give the listener or reader a sense of the character without overloading the story.

-Character is what creates plot. The hero gives us the backbone of our plot. Their actions carry us through.

-Character is the first place to turn if you’re stuck. Stuck in a story corner? Go back to your lead character in the scene, and re-find a sense of them. What would they do next?

-Character is the answer to everything. Go there if you have a plot problem, if you want to add surprise, or if you want change the atmosphere.

How To Work With Your Characters

The image of an iceberg is very appropriate here. Did you know that two thirds of an iceberg is under the water and cannot be seen? The same is true of people. We often reveal very little of our internal world to others. The job of a storyteller is to get under the water. Screenwriter Lew Hunter, in his book Screenwriting 404, offers the image of the ‘mind worm’. We want to burrow ever deeper inside the head of our character. By the end of the story her or his emotional world should have been emptied out. The listener or reader should have seen all their bravery, fear, anger, and hope. At the risk of overloading this unit with metaphors… it’s a little like peeling an onion. We’re removing the layers one by one, revealing them to the listener or reader.

The listener or reader doesn’t have to like the hero. In fact, nice is boring. Don’t make your hero nice, just make sure the audience understand what motivates her or him. That is all that’s necessary to get your audience caring about what happens to them. A good way of making a seemingly not-so-nice hero sympathetic is to give them a weakness or vulnerability. By all means make your hero a serial killer, but have them like animals and be really kind to their cat :-) 

Once you’ve decided on your hero they must to survive until the end of the story. You’re coercing the listener or reader into identifying with them. Therefore, to kill them off before the end is like killing the reader. That’s a pretty nasty thing to do! However, there are exceptions to this guideline. A notable one is in the horror genre. Here, we want to unnerve and destabilise our reader. They’ll be disappointed if we don’t. Killing off the character through whose eyes they have been seeing, achieves that marvellously.

Start with your lead character, and grow the story with them.

Remember page 17? At the end of act one something happens that forces your hero to undertake a journey. Every step of the way, see the created world through their eyes, and only have them take action when they are ready to do so.

Character is revealed in conflict.

Set up your characters in conflict rather than conversation. Through conflict change and growth are enabled. There should be no ‘static’ conflict; it must be attack to counter attack. The protagonist’s decision leads to the antagonist’s decision and vice versa at every stage. Compromise in either the hero or antagonist must be impossible unless there is ‘death’ of some dominant quality in one of characters, almost always at the end. If the strength of your two central characters is not retained through the story there can be no tension.

The cast of characters in your story need to behave like an orchestra. They should be well defined, uncompromising, and as different as possible. They should each have a unique voice and purpose as regards the plot. Double check: are all your characters necessary?

Show Not Tell

I mentioned that just as two thirds of an iceberg is under water, there is much about each individual that is hidden from others. This includes our emotions, hopes, fears, expectations, value systems, thoughts, and ideas.

Show not tell is an oft-quoted saying in creative writing. What it means is that it is nearly always stronger to use solid, showable, visual events that convey a character’s inner life, than to try to describe, straight off the bat, that inner life in abstract terms.

For example: we could say ‘he was feeling sad’. However, it would be much stronger in storytelling terms to say ‘he crawled down the street, pulling resistant feet, shoulders slumped’. It’s stronger because we’re showing not telling.

This relates back to how we function as human animals. We construct our worlds using conceptual metaphor. We use the most solid terms to convey the more abstract. Solid terms include sensory impressions- for example the taste of food, as well as physical sensations. However, all you really need to know is that wherever possible we need to use symbols and metaphor to convey character’s emotional worlds. The smallest object, gesture, mannerism, behaviour, the colour of their hat on a certain day, or the fact that they choose that hat at all on that day… these things can convey a wealth of information about your characters' inner, less graspable worlds.

Melissa Bruder, in A Practical Handbook for the Actor calls these symbols ‘externals’.

An external is a physical adjustment made by the actor that… aids in the telling of the story.

For our purposes, it’s also for the storyteller or writer to pin down these externals on the page. Examples include:

1. Bodily adjustments-for example, posture, voice or speech alterations, and physical handicaps.

2. Ornaments- for example costumes and make-up.

3. Physical states-for example, drunkenness, exhaustion, feeling hot or cold or illness

The point made is that these externals must be made ‘as habitual as the lines of the play’ to the actor. And to the storyteller or writer.


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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.