Whilst at university studying scriptwriting I opted for an exchange student program at Ryerson university, Toronto. My time there felt all but script writing related bar one class I took with a professor who looked alarmingly like Greg Kinnear. What he taught us about character completely changed my perspective and I’ve tried to incorporate his message into my work ever since.
Although it was quite some time ago here’s a break down of his principle ideas.
Disclaimer: This isn’t necessarily the right way to do things. There is never a right way in creating stories just approaches and techniques that work for some people. Do what’s best for you!
No more personality traits.
Johnny keeps eating his flat mates burritos from the fridge but never buys any himself. Is Johnny acting selfishly? It would seem that way. Is Johnny a selfish person? Perhaps not.
Humans are judgemental, it’s what we do and that’s ok. Life would be extremely difficult if we didn’t have a way of emotionally compartmentalising all of our interactions. However, when we examine the people close to us one would be hard pressed to describe them accurately with a list of arbitrary adjectives beyond their appearance. Under examination the human mind is far more complex and seemingly contradictary. Both simultaneously selfish and selfless, arrogant and modest, depending on the myriad of changing circumstances and contexts that enter our lives. It stands to reason then, ascribing basic personality adjectives to someone generalises that person, and bounds them by broad semantic connotations that do not do that individual any true justice.
Now, if we are in the business of creating characters, creating a personification of humanity we wish to be as plausible as possible, why should we use a list of ‘judgement words’ to shape their personality? Why is this always the starting block for character creation? How can we expect our characters to be anything more than these two dimensional terms? It’s a dangerously constrictive game to play.
How do we get around this?
Show don’t tell.
Luckily for us, a fundamental rule of scriptwriting has been coercing you to break this habit every time you go to write your next scene. In the scriptwriting game we have two senses we are allowed to tell our story with: sight and sound. If the audience can use no other senses then neither should the writer, otherwise the translation from script to screen would not work. What this means is that character can only be portrayed in what we see them do or say.
Try and adopt the two senses rule from the very beginning. If you have the seed of a character idea but do not know how to develop them, simply start writing like you would a script. As an excersise write scenes with other characters you have or are working on in which they discuss a subject or want to acquire something from the other. You will be surprised how your character will grow and reveal themselves if you have no preconcieved notions of who they are. In doing this you allow the character to become more autonomous and real. They are not bound by constrictive personality traits but are instead are a complete stranger that you have to discover.
Of course, when your understanding of a character grows you may wish to simply sit down and write about them in detail, figure out all the nooks and crannies of their life, and that’s great. You want to be in a position where you can fill them with colour and detail. This idea of allowing characters to move and behave before you understand them is an excerise in creative freedom. It helps you move past that first stage when you desperately want to figure everything out but it’s just not working. As wonderfully liberating and poetical adjectives can be, they are also heavily burdened with meaning and connotation. Attaching them to someone you barely know is similar to labelling or even stereotyping. People are far greater than this. Observe them, study them and they might just show you something you may never have considered.