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.

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.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 2

One of the earliest influential philosophers is Thales from ancient Greece. Since him there has been a continuous succession of thinkers who built upon their predecessors, criticizing what they don’t like, correcting what they can, and emphasizing what makes the most sense. Since Thales we can trace the path of Western thought through to today, mapping the brain change of the world, and it’s all pretty interesting, minus the Dark Ages.

The classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) set the stage for world philosophy, and many other cultures absorbed their ideas before the formation of distinct philosophies of their own. Some would claim the Greeks were the fathers of philosophy, who made an art of thinking that benefited the rest of humanity. Others would argue that the Greek philosophers stunted the growth of future free-thinkers, limiting would-be revolutionaries with their categories and strict methods.

A goal of many intellectuals is to surpass their formative history and offer something new to the world, whether it be an invention, a way of thinking, or a new analysis of something we’ve taken for granted. It can be hard to break away from tradition and offer something new, but one thing I’ve learned is that the broader the net we cast for information, the bigger the potential catch. Even opposing opinions offer us a chance to compare and contrast and flex our own intellectual and intuitive genius.

I think reading is one of the best uses of time. The following books helped me to think in new ways.

Critical PathCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky Fuller is an autodidact, inventor, engineer, and revolutionary thinker. His goal is simple: to make things easier for human beings by thinking about a problem and coming up with a novel solution. It doesn’t seem like he made a fortune, but his perspective has influenced a couple generations of scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. A major thrust in this work is the idea of ephemeralization (a term he coined), which describes our technological development trend of being able to do more work, more efficiently, in less time, with less material. Think of what a computer looked like in the 1970s and compare it to your smartphone. The brilliance of this book is that Fuller is truly a systems-thinker, and always has the big picture in mind. And best of all, he’s a little kooky. I recommend this book for the socially conscious.

 

Quantum PsychologyQuantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Written with humour, erudition, and infectious optimism, this handy little manual offers us a new look at our selves. This book is a guided tour to opening new ways of thinking and acting. It asks us to look at what we know of the world, then to look at how we know these things and why. In 200 pages this book challenges every belief, every behavior, and every excuse to avoid being who we want to be. This is a manual about writing your own life script but it is far from being New Age. Wilson’s voice is authoritative, wise and hilarious throughout, and every chapter offers practical exercises for the reader to begin opening new horizons. Recommended for everyone.

 

StoryStory by Robert McKee

This book, and its author, are a little bit legendary in the film industry for a variety of reasons. McKee attacks the construction of a screenplay using big, fundamental ideas that shed light on what stories have to offer to the human experience and what makes a story satisfying. His aggressive writing style almost challenges the reader to prove him wrong when he explains why character is story, why story must be told through conflict, and why there must be a major emotional value change in every scene, sequence, act, and movie. When I first got the book I assumed, since I like so-called art films, that I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say. After all, Eraserhead doesn’t have much in common with, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But most of the points McKee makes hold true for just about every movie, every novel, every short story, short film, opera, play, campfire story, drunken anecdote…Recommended for anyone interested in storytelling.