It certainly makes for an interesting debate whether modern day characters might be the more difficult characters to create than historical characters. Historical characters already have so much character built in. Whether it’s a Western, the Middle Ages, Rome, or even Neanderthal, every century prior to the current one is rich in type, costume, look, dialog, and action (behavior plus desire). Instead of creating it’s more like capturing. But then, perhaps history can inform the 21st century character. From hippies in the 60s to Valley Girls in the 80s to Goth, WW2 generation, nerds and jocks, there’s no shortage of type. It may send shudders up and down the spine of many an actor in taking on any one of Shakespeare’s characters, never easy roles to interpret. A major difference in classic theater characters and current film characters is that current characters are, for the most part, only created once.
Hayley McKenzie’s Creating Memorable Characters, is a great place to explore characters, from Scarlet O’Hara to Hannibal Lecter. In her article she mentions the classic Wizard of Oz characters, which have become archetypes, from the Cowardly Lion to the Tin Man without a heart.
Carl Jung is famous for having defined 5–or 12, depending on the source–archetypes: The Self, the Shadow, the Anima, the Animus and the Persona. But limiting awareness of the magnitude of character to such a short list–no matter how well-defining or informative–is a bit archaic. From the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality test to the futuristic explorations of transhumanism, clearly there is danger in dumping the entire human race into nice, neat categories.
However, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and so many other explorers into the human psyche have given us much to discover, and their work is always an excellent jumping off point into the understanding and creation of characters in stories. We know when someone is neurotic or psychotic, from nail biting to hearing voices in a dog’s bark.
The U.S. Dept. of State’s, Toolkit for Teens, explores personality prototype (as opposed to archetype) in Chapter 3: Group Focus Session 3: What Is Your Personality Prototype Profile?
The International Center for Talent Development provides downloadable materials like the Baum & Nicols Personality Prototype Model (also used by the State department); Adult Personality Prototype Test and Student Personality Prototype Test.
A Buddhist perspective really ups the ante in terms of understanding what many people are striving for, that is, falling under the spiritual goal of enlightenment. When asking the all important question, “What does a character want,” character type takes on significantly new meaning when asking that question from the perspective of spirituality.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is what Anthony Hopkins reveals, during an Actors Studio interview with James Lipton, as the essence of Shakespeare’s antagonists: the beast inside humankind. Seeing ourselves as animals says much about who we are and why we behave the way we do. Interestingly, Hopkins plays a character who discovers his animal self in Instinct.
Jobs often define character types, since people have a tendency to stereotype themselves. Of course any stereotyped character runs the risk of being unexciting. The choice to use a stereotype must be intentional. Uniforms contribute to stereotype: cop, nurse, pilot, prison guard, prisoners, sports, priests, “the knight in shining armor,” and particularly military. When it comes to uniforms, character must be revealed in other ways besides costume. Star Trek and 100s of cop and soldier driven movies have proven uniforms don’t have to be limiting. Type cast is often used in place of stereotype, but refers more to body type and perhaps a role some actors/actresses play over and over, from movie to movie. Gang members are often defined by an array of tatoos.
Society has standards for how people should look: “a professional appearance,” “clean cut,” and the harmful standards of beauty defined by the fashion industry and yes, Hollywood. Name calling labels certain types, like the “bitch,” “asshole” or “prick.” It’s commonly accepted in everyday conversation that when someone is called a bitch or an asshole, most people know what the person is talking about. However, what does a bitch look like?
Other types not necessarily based on looks are extrovert/introvert, emotional vs. reserved, feeling vs. thinking, judgemental, rude, and other displays of emotion and personality. And then of course, obvious physical appearances like short/tall, blond/redhead, fat/skinny.
Meyers/Briggs is a popular way of defining who we are:
Called “dichotomies,” ESTJ, for instance, is an acronym for extraversion, sensing, thining, judgment. INFP represents introversion, intuition, feeling, perception.
And then… there are aliens. Creating an alien blows any prior theories of personality and character type wide open. The alien in the Alien franchise (Signorey Weaver, Ridley Scott, written by Dan O’Bannon and story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett), obviously was not human, but perhaps one of the most important character types in movie history. In Alien Resurrection (the 4th installment of the Alien franchise), there is tremendous human expression in the baby alien’s face as it is sucked out into deep space via a hole in the spaceship’s interior.
How strange it is, Hollywood’s knack for getting audiences to care about characters whose sole mission is to destroy or eat humans. The ability of storytellers to reveal the human side of bad people may perhaps be one of the most controversial issues in moviemaking. Why should we care about evil people? What is it that makes us care whether Scarface lives or dies? What kinds of emotons are stirred when we discover the evil Darth Vader is actually a father? What some critics call a glorification of evil and/or violence may in fact be a storyteller’s quest for truth. What could be more upsetting than knowing Hitler was allegedly a vegetarian? Whether he actually was a vegetarian remains controversial. Yet, during the Nazi reign was an animal protection movement, a true twist in moral values, to say the least.
If done right, the actor who plays Hitler is sure to make movie history.
Then again, antagonists are often more entertaining than the very protagonists they are meant to oppose. In the Alien series, however, the character we care about most is Ellen Ripley…even when she becomes a clone of herself in Alien Resurrection. Another clone story, and some say a cloned boy the reason for less than commercial success, is AI: Artificial Intelligence. How can we care about a non-human character? Ironically, William Hurt’s character, Professor Hobby, asks the all important question: Can a robot be capable of love? During a lecture/demonstration of current robotic technology, he is asked by one of the attendees, “Isn’t the real question, can a human love a robot?” (dialog paraphrased).
Family types are character types: the mom, the dad, the stepdad, the son, the daughter, etc. Such generic types run the risk of stereotype. We all have visions of what a mother should be. We certainly don’t envision our sons and daughters as criminals, drug addicts or afflicted with mental/emotional illness. The classic TV show, Leave It To Beaver, still represents the carryover of the 50s perfect nuclear family into the 2000s. The belief in the “perfect family” is the cause for much conflict, and of course, opening the doors for many a story.
A common definition in the quest of defining stories is, “placing an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances.” As exciting and dramatic as that premise may be, by no means does it capture the storyline of every story. Historical characters in particular, are far from ordinary, i.e., Lincoln, John Adams, Kinsey, Queen Elizabeth, Patton. Comic heroes are certainly not ordinary. There must be something compelling about an ordinary person to rise above the ordinary. Otherwise…we have an ordinary story.
But whether we care or not about ordinary or extraordinary characters is not the sole defining purpose of creating characters. It’s not so much we care about Superman or Spiderman, more so, it’s wish fullfillment. Saying we identify with heroic characters is also not entirely accurate. Afterall, no one is ever going to say, “Hey, I understand what Superman is going thru–I’ve been there myself.” The goal in the creation of these kinds of characters then, is to raise the human spirit.
Rather than defining a story as “character-driven,” or “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” or something with a beginning, middle and an end, a story is that which raises the human spirit. In this way, a song, a painting, a dance performance, a heroic act in real life, is a story. There’s an irony in the need to raise the human spirit in the first place. What is it about life, about the human experience, that has our spirits so low? Are we destined to continuously seek ways to rise above the suffering?
- More What is a Story? articles by Jerry Flattum
- Balls of Steel: Change Will Do You Good
- Party Pals and Doormat Dudes: Supporting Characters Gone Wild
- Balls of Steel: Therapy for Your Character
Tools to Help:
In addition to many great books on character, The Writers Store offers several software packages for the design and creation of character.