DYOM » Text Tutorials » The Art of a Good Plot: How to create a character? - Part 2

The Art of a Good Plot: How to create a character? - Part 2



Part 2: Characterization vs Character

If you read Syd Field's "Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting", there is a curious phrase that he repeats again, and again, and again, that says "action is character". In my head, I really thought he inverted those words, because it did make more sense for me in that time that, actually, character is action, instead of the opposite. Characters are responsible for leading the action in a story. And then, one day, I understood that the phrase "action is character" is not wrong. It was the meaning I was giving to it. The word "character" in english has many meanings, so the word "character" doesn't mean character as a persona, as a personality you build, instead it means someone's true personality, or like the old greek philosophers would say, someone's true essence. Try to keep that info in your head that today we will talk about a new important part of how to build a character.
When you imagine a character, you're seeing a person. In the first part, we talked about Walter, so let's keep talking about him. Walter White is a chemistry teacher, he has two sons, he wears glasses, he dresses up like that classic and boring barbecue's uncle we hate, he is married, he gets a miserable wage from his jobs, he has a deadly cancer and he worries about his family. This is Walter White, right? Well, kind of. When you meet a new person in real life, he or she will have observable traits. For example, what kind of clothes this person is wearing? Does he/she brush the hair? Does he/she stinks? Is he/she in college? Stuff like that. But these traits won't really define who this person really is. For example, if you meet me in real life, you will see that I'm tall, I have a beard, I usually use only one pair of shoes, I'm in college studying psychology and I take a pen and a piece of paper in every single place I go. Based on that, you can make a lot of suppositions on who I am. But none of these traits can really tell you that I get pissed when I'm hungry, or that I procrastinate as much as possible to deliver a task, or that I like cats more than dogs. But the thing is: these things, the ones you can or can't see on me, doesn't really matter. Who really cares if I have beard or if I get pissed when I'm hungry? But depending on which traits are these, this kind of thing will matter a lot. Reading this basic description of me, most people wouldn't care about anything. But if I exchange the phrase "I like cats" for "I don't like cats", things start to get complicated. Why he doesn't like cats? If I say "I take a pen and a piece of paper in every single place I go", you may think "Oh, he probably write" because that is a normal supposition. But if I say "I don't like cats", you may thing "Does he hate animals?". This is still just a supposition, but if we exchange "I don't like cats" for "I usually kill people for fun", will the other traits have the same importance as this one? In my trial for the murderings I've committed, will the jury be convinced by the fact that I like to write, or what I did (kill people for fun) will have more importance than anything else you can say about me? This is one of the most interesting things on the character of Hannibal Lecter. He was a psychiatrist, extremely fancy, he had a good taste, he likes to go to the opera house and judge the musicians at the orchestra, he was a great designer, yet he killed people and ate them in his meals. Nobody could really see he was a psycho and a serial killer. But he was. There is a huge distinction between who he seems to be and who he really is.
This distinction is something Robert McKee will bring as "Characterization vs Character". Characterization is the total amount of observable traits a human being can have. Age, IQ, gender, sexuality, house and car styles, clothes, work, personality, virtues and behaviors. All aspects that can be recognized when we watch someone every day. This great quantity of traits piled up is characterization, but not the character. The true character is revealed in the choices that a human being makes under pressure. The higher the pressure is, higher will be the revelation of the character's true self. What does it really means? It means that people can look like something, but what they do when they are under pressure is what shows what they really are. Walter is a great person, super boring and full of problems, but now that he has a death sentence and he needs to leave his family in a comfortable situation after his death, he decided to synthesise drugs, get in the black market and kill a lot of people. Does he still being a good person? Walter is interesting because his characterization (observable traits) and his character (the choices he makes when he's under pressure) are so distinct that he has an alter-ego: Heisenberg. So, we can conclude that Walter is the characterization, but Heisenberg is the character. Breaking Bad is not a story about how Walter fought against a cancer, it's actually the rise and fall of a drug dealer named Heisenberg. He's the one who took decisions, the one who create drugs, the one who kills people, the one who lies to his family. He is the character. The chemistry teacher he looks to be for everyone else is just the characterization.
This is the meaning of Syd Field's phrase: "action is character". It's what you do, not what you speak, or how you dress, or what do you look like. What you do is what reveals your character. The decisions you make will reveal the person you are. If you're a boring chemistry teacher, but you think that it's okay to sell drugs and kill people, which one of these two you really are? McKee will say: "under the surface of characterization, regardless of semblances, who is this person? In the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he kind or cruel? Generous or selfish? Weak or strong? Honest or liar? Coward or brave? The only way to know the truth is to witness when he makes an important decision under pressure to take one or another move when seeking a goal. When he choose, he is".
Orange Is The New Black is a serie that usually shows this distinction between characterization and character. The protagonist is a white blond woman from a rich family that is arrested. And the people who meet her before this event deny the fact she is a criminal. In the end of season 2, there is a dialogue between this distinction between characterization and character, between the protagonist and her father. Her father wants her sentece to finish as soon as possible because in that way he can stop living with this and pretend it never happened. That his daughter return to be the person he wants her to be.

Father: -I'm sorry, honey. I just can't see you like that.

Daugher: -Like what?

Father: You're my little girl. That woman in there... that's not who you are.

Daughter: -That's exactly who I am.

It doesn't matter if you're a white woman, from a rich family. When you commit crimes, you're also a criminal. It doesn't matter if you're a fancy psychiatrist who cooks really good food, if you kills a lot of people to eat them after, you're a cannibal and a serial killer. And the irony of the story is the fact that these two things, characterization and the real character, will always be together, but they won't be the same. The decisions this person will make under pressure are part of a set. He will say: "When the characterization and the truly character are the same, when interior life and exterior aspect are one single substance, the role turns into a list of repetitive and predictable actions. The revelation of the true character being the opposite of the characterization is essential to every good story. Life teaches this essential principle: what is seems to be is not what it is. People are not what they look to be. No matter what they say, no matter how they behave, the only way to know profoundly someone is to analyze the choices made under pressure".
Characterization is a millionaire playboy (Bruce Wayne), character is decide to use every resource and technology to personally fight crime in Gotham (Batman); Characterization is to be an employee who lives to work and consume (Edward Northon), but the truly character created a movement with the goal of restructure the global economy (Tyler Durden); Characterization is a toy loved and popular, ready to do anything the community of toys wants, but the character is a toy who is selfish enough to throw the other through the window. These are consequences of decisions made under pressure that revealed weaknesses and qualities that those characters had inside of them, and that we couldn't see only through the characterization. Only taking these decisions, doing what they did, is how we can see who those characters really are. Because looks can be deceiving, but action is character.

Now get out of here and go start writing.


May 05 '19
Last Update
May 05 '19


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