The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

My Favorite Characters Hate Themselves

Recently I did a little writing exercise. I thought about my favorite characters from movies and television and drafted up a few paragraphs on each. I focused on their strengths, weaknesses, and the various inner conflicts that give them depth. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but once I had it all on the page, I realized that all my favorite characters are highly self-destructive.

Okay, so maybe they don’t hate themselves, but they all have internal compulsions that drive them in conflicting directions. They do things they know they shouldn’t; a dark side compels them, and they seem to have little or no control over that darkness. Even as they do their best to be good, they are subconsciously their own worst enemy.

Don Draper is a perfect example of a great, three-dimensional character. He is a brilliant ad man because he quickly knows what people want, what drives them to act, and he plays on their primal urges. But when it comes to Don’s own urges and wants, he seems oblivious, and so he treads upon himself with profligate sex and alcoholism, trying to fill a gulf of want, but wearing himself down until he can’t find his talent.

One of my favorite movie characters is Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson’s wannabe career criminal has an infectious enthusiasm that is so innocent and childlike he draws otherwise upstanding people into poorly considered criminal schemes. He’s a terrible criminal and realistically has no hope of fulfilling his dreams, but his wide-eyed charisma makes it hard for people to say no, or to be honest with him about his ridiculous plans. Dignan doesn’t hate himself, but if he ever faces the reality of his decisions, he might.

Conflict is necessary; without it, there cannot be a story. But most characters lack that subconscious self-loathing that dominates my list of favorites. (I’m not sure what that says about me.) Generally the more divided a character is, the more rich their internal struggle. It’s easy to say that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is self destructive since he’s so generally sloppy, but he is just too easygoing to hate himself, and his character isn’t as rich or compelling as Dignan in the same measure that Lebowski is less tragic.

Think about Breaking Bad’s Walter White, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Bill Murray from Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters or Scrooged or Lost In Translation, Eddy from Hurlyburly, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation or “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Romeo, Hamlet, Dracula.

These characters are some of my favorites. Their internal tensions drive the respective plots forward with an sharp edge. The problems generated by these inner conflicts give me a thrill because I sense that I’m not just watching an external narrative advance step by step; I’m seeing an existential crisis in action. I get the sense these characters sometimes wonder, “How can I be this way?”

Even when the plot doesn’t have to move forward, great inner conflicts lead to memorable characters. Sam Malone from Cheers is a recovering alcoholic, a washed up baseball player who, since he knows nothing else, buys a bar and works his days away with his ex-coach, nailing as many ladies as possible. Diane Chambers, a self-styled intellectual and scholar, takes a job as a barmaid and cannot resist Sam’s charm. To my mind, this is one of the best premises ever for a sitcom.

I resonate with these characters. I feel quickly and deeply invested. I want these characters to struggle with themselves and I usually want to see their better natures win in the end. We all have inner conflicts, and we generally see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. A well-crafted character should gradually invite us to project our conflicts, to see ourselves in the character’s skin (to some extent) and reciprocally, to share in their emotions.

And the best characters aren’t necessarily revealed right away. Sometimes it can take multiple viewings or readings to tease apart the antipodal motivations, to really get inside a character’s head and start to understand those primal urges that drive him or her. A great character should be rich enough with content that they can surprise us, but once we get inside their heads, it should all make perfect sense.

My favorite character ever might be the darkest of all: Laura Palmer. Her death at the beginning of Twin Peaks marks the beginning of our discovery. In 30 episodes we never properly meet her, but we learn so much of her inner conflicts we can infer depths to her that most characters cannot touch. And when we finally meet her in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we get a touching and disturbing portrait of struggle between light and darkness. Laura is a heroine who still resonates with culture today, echoing all over the media landscape in shows like The Killing.

Truly great characters live forever.

Two Crucial Things “Argo” Missed

I’m a hardened cynic when it comes to the Oscars. My favorite pictures are rarely nominated and I haven’t been impressed by a Best Picture winner since No Country For Old Men in 2007, and before that, Unforgiven (1992). If you think I give the Oscars a cold shoulder just because I’m not part of the fun, please read this article, published in The Atlantic by an Academy member. It’s a side of Oscar night you don’t see on television.

At the time of the Oscar telecast I had seen exactly zero of the Best Picture nominees (though I was fortunate to catch Searching For Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary). Unimpressed with Ben Affleck’s previous efforts, I had no desire to see Argo. But I’m an open minded guy, right? So I challenged myself to watch and enjoy it.

Argo passed the first test. It was watchable. At no point did I want to shut it off and mourn my wasted time. The narrative is effective; I found no terrible plot holes or useless scenes that dragged down the pacing. In fact, if you’re looking for a movie to take up two hours of your life, this one is just fine.

My cynicism isn’t purely negative; it grows from my optimism that the televisual arts can be much more than time filler. And in this sense Argo failed. Here are two crucial elements Argo missed that a great film should have.

Character/character development

Every movie is a world. Rather than passively observing, we rely on characters to act as our surrogates in a journey through this world. The more thoroughly developed a character is, the more we identify with the character and the more immersed we become in the conflicts this fictional world provides the character(s).

In Argo there were no characters that I could discern. Instead of characters we are given a series of characterizations. Characterizations are the superficial elements of characters such as the things they say or wear or own. Because Argo moves the plot forward so mechanically, we never see the characters conflicted to the point where they have to make revealing choices. Instead the characters just do what they do to move the plot forward.

Robert McKee wrote correctly when he pointed out that a choice between good and evil is no choice at all. A good character will choose the good, and an evil character will choose evil, and we learn nothing about either character in this case. True character is revealed in the choices the character makes under pressure. Even more revealing is when a character decides between two goods or two evils.

McKee uses a good example I’ll reiterate. Two people are driving down a highway, one in a clunker and the other in a Ferrari. They come upon a burning bus with people trapped inside. If the guy in the Ferrari stops to help and the other person doesn’t, we’ve learned much more about them than the type of car they drive. If they both stop and try to help, we learn about true character by how they do it. Does one person automatically try to rescue the women before the men? Does one of them reach for the only white person? Does one charge blindly into the fire while the other calls the police? These actions reveal much more than dialogue or fashion.

Ben Affleck’s character has no journey, no character arc through this film. Sure he makes decisions under pressure, but his inner strength or convictions are never threatened. He simply moves the plot forward. We’re told at the beginning of the film that he’s “their best guy,” and he just does the ideal thing in each situation. There are a couple scenes that mention he is estranged from his wife and son, but (spoiler) when he escapes from Iran, his wife simply accepts him back. He does literally nothing to overcome the conflict with his wife (which is meant to show us his character and humanity); it is resolved for him mechanically and for no apparent reason.

Likewise we see no telling decisions made by any of the other characters. In Argo, if a character is meant to be funny, he or she says funny things. If a character is not trusting, he or she argues. We never see characters faced with any meaningful choices, and the characters undergo absolutely no internal change from the beginning to the end of the movie. Thus Argo plays like a soulless, clockwork fiction.

Something More

Now more than ever Industry kills Art. I romanticize a time in history when art was made simply to instill a sense of the sublime and the beautiful, but successful art in our culture must put asses in the seats. In fact, our artistic industries only demand that asses make it into seats. Whether the product is sublime or beautiful or meaningful is completely secondary to the bottom line. Because of this I go to very few theatrical releases.

2001: A Space OdysseyFilms that move me have something extra. Call it an X-factor. A great movie should engage our reason and intuition as well as our emotions, and it should project us toward something more than what is seen and heard. We should come away from a movie still thinking about it, still moved by it, or still involved in its mystery. A perfect film achieves all three. I want a movie to take on an inner life in my psyche that draws me deeper into the spirit of the experience. Otherwise the movie is just a two hour experience like any other. A car ride can take two hours, and it may or may not be enjoyable, but at least it takes me somewhere. I look to art and films in particular to invoke wonder.

Placed next to Lost Highway or 8 1/2 or even Goodfellas, Argo looks about as interesting as a menu. Topical entertainment has its place but it is most effective when it places the particular inside the context of a bigger picture. Why is this topic important for our current marketplace? Yes Iran is in the news, but is that enough? I wonder if people are simply looking for an entertaining confirmation that what they hear in the news is correct (i.e. that Iran is bad). Of course any serious thought on the issue shows it to be much more complicated than that.

A film should have something meaningful to say. You might say that Argo celebrates creative, non-violent problem solving. Okay, fine, but the message starts and ends there. People talked about how smart the sci-fi movie District 9 was because of its parallels to apartheid, but what does the movie actually say about apartheid? It says “Apartheid is bad,” and that’s all. How provocative.

Voting Argo Best Picture is like saying the height of cinematic achievement is that it can make us sit still for two hours without being pissed off. With all that money and talent Hollywood should aim for a little more.

Weekly Insanity

Good sitcom characters are likeably insane. The television industry is very careful with its money, preferring long-running franchises to succinct, original storytelling. This means that sitcoms are populated with characters who generally will not change week to week. We want to count on Diane Chambers to act intellectual, Michael Scott to be inappropriate, Sheldon Cooper to be a difficult genius, and these characters have to get into the same kinds of problems every week.

I’m using Einstein’s definition of insanity here – each week these characters do the same things but expect different results. Characters are usually coloured with at least one type of mania. Their obsessions and blind spots serve as the engine of their adventures. Real personal growth in any of these characters alters the dramatic dynamic of the show, which is why if there are any major character changes, they usually happen after the first season (often redundant characters are written out and where the dynamism is weak new ones are written in or roles shift).

In Modern Family, for example, Cam and Mitchell each are foils. Cam is full of flair and fabulousness while Mitchell is the neurotic, nervous type. Each week they are afraid of getting caught being who they are and they usually lie to avoid awkward situations. These awkward situations each week resolve in reconciliation and life goes on as usual. But each week they make the same mistakes. They never learn, never become less fabulous or nervous, things don’t get better or worse for them.

Because television needs to generate stories dependably, fictional characters need their blind spots. A conscientious character would stop getting into trouble while a slightly insane character provides more dramatic latitude, more comedic opportunity and a more consistent viewing experience.

If these characters were friends of ours we would be frustrated they keep getting into the same trouble. Unless, of course, we were stuck in a complimentary pattern of enabling.

While sitcom characters are generally unrealistic. Of course there are plenty of people in the world who do make the same mistakes every week. None of us fix all our mistakes, but some people are particularly bad. Enter reality television.

The reason shows like Jersey Shore are compelling is that they actually do feature insane people who seem to learn nothing from their experiences. They repeat mistakes ad nauseum. In fact, these people don’t seem to notice their mistakes at all. If every week you get drunk and get into a fight, I must assume it is because you want to get drunk and fight. In which case I don’t like you.

The challenge for sitcoms is to make characters insane while remaining likeable. Jack Donaughy, super-Republican of 30 Rock, pursued corporate and social domination every week but remained hilarious. By contrast Leslie Knope, political nerd of Parks and Recreation, ran out of steam after the first season and has grown consistently more erratic to keep us entertained.

Every week we can count on Sterling Archer (Archer) to get the job done while bagging girls and killing spies, and because the character is a fresh iteration of an old archetype, we don’t get bored. Reagan Brinkley from Up All Night started as an ambitious TV producer, and when she decided to stay home with her child the show fell apart, both creator Emily Spivey and star Christina Applegate left, and the show now hangs in limbo.

The insanity is just a matter of personal taste. Give me someone with my own brand of insanity and I’ll watch. If the insanity mirrors some of the mania I have in my own life, it will resonate and I’ll tune in to vicariously experience my own passions and paranoia play out every week.

Even better is to watch shows with dynamic and nuanced characters. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?