Who is your character, really?

What are the elements of a story? Well, that depends on who you ask and when you ask them. The answer has changed over the years. Some scholars say that story is divided into character, plot, setting, theme, motif and arc. I think, for what we want to talk about, three elements are enough.

Character. Plot. Setting.

A character does some stuff in a time and place. The other elements like themes and motifs are (to me) more about craft and how the story is told instead of what a story is.

In the coming weeks we’ll talk more about all three of those. Today I want to address character. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you what a character is. Instead, I want to chat about one of the most important things to consider when crafting good characters — something that usually gets overlooked. What is the difference between character and characteristic?

I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Most of this comes almost directly from Story by Robert McKee which is (in my opinion) the single best book on how to construct truly engaging stories. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

What you see is what you get?

Characteristics are all those things we can see or observe or find out about a person. Age. Sex. IQ. Hair Color. Favorite color (purple, of course). This would also include the way we speak, gestures, choice of home or car. Anything that can be discovered by careful scrutiny. All of these characteristics together make a character unique. They act like a fingerprint. This is characterization.

Sadly, many, many stories have characters that end here. Characters that may be funny or sad or strong or quirky, even memorable. But they are hollow with only characterization.

Character is only revealed when human beings make choices under pressure. Who is this person, really, beyond the funny drawl or the eccentric genius? The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential character. Revealing true character is what makes your character “three-dimensional”or “well-drawn” or any of the other buzz phrases floating around the interwebs. Pressure is the key. The greater the risk, the more true character you reveal and the more powerful the story becomes.

Prove it

Let me use the example from McKee’s book:

“Two cars motor down a highway. One is a rusted-out station wagon with buckets, mops, and brooms in the back. Driving is an illegal alien —  a quiet, shy woman working as a domestic for under-the-table cash, sole support of her family. Alongside her is a glistening new Porsche driven by a brilliant and wealthy neurosurgeon. Two people who have utterly different backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, languages. In every way imaginable their characterizations are the opposite of each other.

“Either of both of the characters could be your central character, but these characterizations alone leave the story flat. Let’s add pressure to see what character is revealed.

“Suddenly, in front of them, a school bus full of children flips out of control, smashes against an underpass, bursting into flames, trapping the children inside. Now, under this terrible pressure, we’ll find out who these two people really are. Who chooses to stop? Who chooses to drive by? Each has rationalizations for driving by. The domestic worries that if she gets caught up in this, the police may question her and discover she’s illegal. She’ll be deported and her family will starve. The surgeon fears that if he’s inured and his hands burned, hands that perform miraculous microsurgeries, the lives of thousands of future patients will be lost.”

If they both choose to stop, this shows us something powerful about their true character. About who they really are. We can take this even further. Children are trapped. Who calls the police and waits for the ambulance and who dives into the inferno? Each choice mounts the pressure and reveals more and more true character — making your characters more and more memorable. Real.

McKee explains all of this quite a bit more. You really should check it out.

Any other examples, thoughts, musings? Shout out below.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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