Everyone who teaches creative writing will tell you that it’s important to have realistic characters. They must be people the reader can relate to — even like — and the reader must be concerned for the protagonist. This is good advice. After all, it’s characters that make the story interesting.
As a teacher, it’s often my job to get students interested in a particular film or book or, God help me, poem. But kids these days seem more interested in action than people. I tell them that all the chases and gunfights in the world won’t make a story interesting if the audience isn’t interested what happens to the people involved in the chase or fight.
“Ah, but, ” they say, thinking it’s possible to outwit a teacher (innocent lambs!), “what about giant robots? What about aliens? We get concerned for the robots in Transformers. We get worried for Chewbacca in Star Wars if he’s in a fight. And they aren’t human.”
I calmly explain that the reason we’re concerned for them is that they may be giant robots or aliens, but they have human emotions. The reason we think Optimus Prime is one cool dude is because he behaves like one. He doesn’t behave like a robot, he thinks and feels like a human being.
It’s not only convenient that we personify aliens with human emotions so that the reader can relate to them. Human emotions are the only ones we can give them. We don’t know how an alien would emote or think. Chewbacca acts like a human because from our limited anthropocentric perspective that’s the only way we can imagine him acting.
So we think Chewie is a cool dude too.
So we need to give our characters emotions that will get the reader concerned for their welfare. If we don’t care what happens to the character, the writer has failed. It’s the same with the bad guys, too. Every protagonist needs a good antagonist. I’ll write about antagonists later, but for the moment I’ll stick with our protagonists and getting the most out of them.
The problem for the writer is, how do we create different characters? How do we distinguish one from the other? Hollywood is full of actors who only play one character or type of character, usually someone very similar to themselves. I won’t mention any names for fear of getting burned at the stake, but as a professional actor I can definitely say that some other professional actors (some big names too) are the same person in every single movie.
For the writer it’s the same problem. We run the risk of writing the same person over and over because that’s who we are, or who someone we know is, and it’s easy to put them down on paper. But in order to give variety, and above all realism, to our characters we need to bring them life, to make them colourful and vivacious.
So I’m going to propose a way of doing this similar to how actors do it. It’s pretty easy but does take a bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness.
I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, but I’ll leave you with a classic example (literally, an example from a classic).
One of the most complex characters ever written, from what is arguably the most famous play of all time, at least in the English language, Hamlet is not just one person. He presents as someone different in every scene. This makes him hard to act, but fascinating to watch, as he runs through a plethora of totally different character types in the course of the play.
When we first meet Hamlet in Act One Scene Two, he presents as a depressed and rather lazy university student. However, he quickly moves on to fearful ghost hunter, determined criminal investigator, pretend lunatic, ruthless psychological manipulator, angry ex-lover, suicidal wreck, whining mummy’s-boy, wanted criminal, pious Christian, fierce warrior, resigned fatalist, murderous avenger and repentant tragic hero.
That’s what makes Hamlet one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. We never know what to expect from him. That’s also why he’s so hard to act, as the performer has to justify each of these Hamlets to the audience in a way that stitches together seamlessly.
It’s possible to write characters like that, obviously. Shakespeare did. But Shakespeare was pretty darn good, so what hope do we less gifted hacks have?
That’s what I intend to do in the next few blogs, to show you how an actor creates a character. The same techniques can be used in writing. Stay tuned for more.