One tip for creating great characters

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  • One tip for creating great characters

    Far better than most articles on the subject, here's a thought-provoking analysis by James Bonnet on a specific element found in most great characters:

    http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=8

    -- Carlton

  • #2
    Re: One tip for creating great characters

    There are two major problems with Bonnet's reasoning. His first is that great characters embody the quintessential of something: perfect reasoning, great bravery, etc. This comes dangerously close to turning character into stereotype, i.e. Scrooge as the embodiment of greed.They become one-note characters and thus their appearance in a scene automatically signals their strongest trait rather than the complexity of true character.

    What makes dynamic characters great--dynamic meaning that they change over the course of a narrative or a film--is that they are also flawed. Hamlet, one of the greatest characters in all literature, thinks too much; Achilles is a man of too-great pride; and so forth. We can relate to the characters such as these because we can see something of ourselves within them. He uses Sherlock Holmes as an example, but Holmes is a more complex man than Bonnet seems to think. He has the highest and most refined powers of deductive reasoning, but he's also a coke addict and when he falls for a woman he's no longer quite the contained man of intellect he likes to appear to be.

    Bonnet also says:
    Characters that possess this charisma become like deities.
    In which case they'd no longer be characters an audience can relate to.

    I once asked students to divide a page in half into two columns and to think of one person in their lives, then to list on the left side all of the things they thought were good qualities about the person. They listed such things as honesty, courage, decency, etc. Then I asked them to list all the negative qualities on the right side. They listed such things as duplicity, cowardice, etc.

    What they realized is that to create a believable character one had to create a mass of contradictions. No one's completely good or completely bad or complete brave or completely evil. Everyone is made of shadow and light in equal measure.

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    • #3
      Re: One tip for creating great characters

      Jake, I think the point Bonnet is making is that making your character(s) quintessential can be a great tool. It's not the end all be all of what makes a great character, but it's a massive step toward one.

      You say that Holmes was also a coke addict and a social mishap waiting to happen around women he fancies. Well that's what rounds him out as a character. What makes him unique is that he IS the quintessential brilliant detective.

      We "relate" to Holmes because of his ordinary flaws and weaknesses, but we remember him and admire him because of his quintessential trait.

      Without the quintessential trait, Holmes is no different than millions of people. He's just an ordinary guy, and in the framework of the Sherlock Holmes stories, that would be quite boring.

      Creating chracters with quintessential traits is a tremendous tool. Rounding those characters out with depth and common flaws is what allows us to see ourselves in those characters, and thus relate.

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      • #4
        Re: One tip for creating great characters

        I agree that Bonnet is not suggesting characters begin and end with their quintessential quality.

        He's suggesting that every complex character needs a quintessential quality that distinguishes the character from those around him.

        Macbeth is a deeply flawed man. It's his quintessential lust for power that connects the character to the plot, propelling him through the story.

        It's Holmes' quintessential brilliance at solving mysteries that connects him to the plot and propels him through it.

        What would you rather watch, the story of a guy who is sort of okay at pool and a little cocky or the story of a guy who is the best pool player in the world who is so profoundly cocky that he self destructs?

        Would you rather watch the story of a guy who is sort of brave and a little curious about Arab culture or would you rather watch the story of a guy who is brave to the point of insanity and so enamored with Arab culture that he is only at home in the desert?

        A character's quintessential quality is the tent pole that allows the character to stand. You can drape it in any manner of cloth you wish to make it different from other tents but without that pole it's just a pile of cloth on the ground.


        Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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        • #5
          Re: One tip for creating great characters

          I'm with Deus on this, it's how I build my characters. They have a quintessential point that I revolve the other parts of their charcter around. It colors everything they do or say. But I don't take it as far as Bonnet does, or at least, as far as it seems to me he does.

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          • #6
            Re: One tip for creating great characters

            I can relate to Bonnet's article. I think what he is stressing is that your character's should be bigger than life, like no other character seen before. I don't think he's saying make your character flawless, just extroidinary. It's the quintessential part of the character that makes the character different. Everyone has flaws, there's nothing special about that. Yes, people want to see characters they can relate to, but they also want to see an unforgetable character. Put a character on screen that has autism. Everyone knows what autism is, they have a pretty good idea of how the character is going to behave, the struggles and conflicts he/she must face in everyday life. But have a character faced with autism who is the greatest mathematician in the world, and you got Raymond Babbit from "Rain Man". Now suddenly, the character's behavior, struggles, and conflicts, become more interesting. You have a character that will live on forever as one of the best characters of all time.

            Now and days, the characters in movies are all a bit cliche in some way or another. It's up to the writer to make that character different and memorable. How? By finding that one trait and taking it beyond the limit of just plain ordinary.

            Steph
            "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

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            • #7
              Re: One tip for creating great characters

              Raymond isn't the greatest mathematician in the world; he's what's known as an "idiot savant", more common than you think. And he's hardly larger than life. He's more a stereotype of what people think autism is. Autism is a lot more transparent than Hoffman's portrayal.

              My issue with Bonnet is how misconstrued his words could turn out to be, especially for a young writer. Character is a profoundly complex creation, and starting with something "quintessential" (and, God, you'd run out of qualities mighty fast--strongest, fastest, smartest, dopiest, most beautiful, ugliest) is fine. But character is a planet that's bombarded more often than one would think by asteroids in the form of other characters and events. These shape the quintessence very quickly into something believably human.

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              • #8
                Re: One tip for creating great characters

                Give us characters we want to be, empathise with or fvck.
                http://wasitsomethingiwrote.blogspot.com/

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: One tip for creating great characters

                  Raymond is a quintessential idiot savant.

                  His character is not limited to his Autism. He has many qualities and traits that exist in the context on his being Autistic, but these traits are what makes him unique and different from other idiot savants.

                  It is his quintessential quality that gives his character shape and connects him to the plot and allows him to make a purposeful contribution to the unfolding drama.

                  His unique traits shade his actions so they seem unique to the character which in turn makes his character seem unique.


                  Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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                  • #10
                    Re: One tip for creating great characters

                    "It's up to the writer to make that character different and memorable. How? By finding that one trait and taking it beyond the limit of just plain ordinary."
                    -----------------------------
                    Stephan,

                    Your above comment is an excellent encapsulation of the entire Bonnet article.

                    And it's worth noting that some well drawn characters occasionally are enriched by a secondary trait which, when also taken beyond the limit of ordinary, further dimensionalizes them and makes them fascinating.

                    In Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," Gordon Gekko is not only greed personified, but his total disdain for SEC rules regarding obtaining and using insider information, (any means to an end) shows his very absorbing trait of unscrupulousness taken beyond our ordinary experience. This secondary trait was entertaining for the same reason that it was when seen in the machinations of Larry Hagman's JR Ewing in most episodes of the "Dallas" TV series.

                    -- Carlton

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                    • #11
                      Re: One tip for creating great characters

                      All idiots savants are quintessential, just as Deus is the quintessential Deus, and I'm the quintessential Jake. My quibble is with Bonnet's language. By fairly common opinion, the greatest character in all of English literature is Hamlet. Why? Not because he's quintessentially anything. He's a thirty-year-old college student at the University of Wittenberg who got cheated out of a throne by his uncle. What makes him a great character? The fact that he possesses many "faces", that, as Proust discovered 400 years later, a character is most vivid when contradictory.

                      Anyway, we all have our approaches. I've been writing character-driven scripts and novels for years, and this approach has served me well enough.

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                      • #12
                        Re: One tip for creating great characters

                        But if Hamlet was John Mclaine. That's a movie!
                        http://wasitsomethingiwrote.blogspot.com/

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: One tip for creating great characters

                          But if Hamlet was John Mclaine. That's a movie!
                          Now would he have said "The rest is silence" as Hans fell from roof instead of "Happy Trails, Hans"?
                          Last edited by prescribe22; 11-02-2005, 03:04 PM.

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                          • #14
                            Re: One tip for creating great characters

                            Kay yippee kay Ayh!

                            Which lets face it means more to 90% of those who saw die hard.

                            I'm not mocking that. Seriously.
                            http://wasitsomethingiwrote.blogspot.com/

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: One tip for creating great characters

                              I was going to use that, but I couldn't spell it.

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