Previously we have discussed how to frame emotion in your scene and also how to represent emotion and character through alternate means. Now we need to consider the actual writing of a character, and the ways in which you bring them to life.
A character is more than just a puppet that you direct and your actor portrays from paper to film. To truly bring a character to life and the pull your audience in, providing a more intense immersion, they need so much more than a few lines of dialogue and some scene blocking. A character needs personality traits, a past, a potential future, relationships and everything we all have in the real world.
This can be portrayed in a multitude of ways. One of the more simple ways, for example, is through the way a character dresses. If you consider the different regenerations of the Doctor in Doctor Who (1963- ) as an example of this. Each has their own unique outfit, it helps distinguish them from previous regenerations and provides an insight into their personality. Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor, was more serious than previous Doctors, Eccleston himself stated in a 2004 interview (BBC News, 2004) "I don't think [my doctor] is going to be as eccentric and as foppish as he was in some of his incarnations". This was reflected in his attire, a long black coat and no gaudy accessories. In contrast to this Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, is much more childish and comedic. His attire matched this with a bow tie and often a fez or other flamboyant headwear, which he proclaims to be "cool".
Another way of bringing your character to life in the eyes of your audience is to give them a backstory. Linda Seger (1990, p.48) discussed what she calls the front story, “the real story the writer wants to tell”, but goes on to say that choices made by characters in the front story are informed by their past. This is why we must consider the backstory of characters we write. A lot of this information might never be seen by the audience but it provides a basis for the characters current personality, a reason for their actions and responses. Providing an actor with a decent backstory allows a writer to consider a character's approach to a situation, to have react appropriately to for their personality.
This brings a subtle realism that is hard to pinpoint when done right but so obviously absent when ignored. It is safe to say that, outside solid casting for the part, building a life outside of the frame for the character is the most important thing to consider. When the character isn't on screen the audience need to believe that they are off doing things, living, existing, before coming back into the narrative. It helps an audience engage with a character like they otherwise would not be able to.
So how do you write a character that works in this way and allows for a director to achieve this? Careful script planning. When writing dialogue think about how a person speaks. When discussing their action, think about how they move, what motivates them to action. But most importantly keep a separate document that outlines your characters, or at least your main characters, in full. If you write a brief for your character before commencing with the script it will help shape their responses in your final piece, as you always have them as an individual in your mind.
A director needs to be able to bring a character to life, they need to consider the character as an individual. What are their motivations and how do they live both within this script and outside of it in the wider context of the narratives world?
To demonstrate the point let's design a character that we can use later. A character that doesn't even have a narrative to fall into yet so they are entirely an entity in their own right.
Start with the basics; a male, 32 years old, named Percy Adams. So we have a starting point to work from. Now we don't yet have a world that his character can live within, we will discuss world construction in a later post, so for now let's just pick a setting that already exists. Modern day Britain, medium sized town just outside London.
Let's run this back, we have; a 32 year old male living in a town outside London. Let's establish a little more about him, he works in an office, as an I.T. support engineer, in London and commutes on a train to work 5 days a week. So we have his basic profile, a job and normal day to day activities. From the job you can assume a daily attire for the character, in this case a shirt, smart pants and a tie, standard office wear. From here you can add to a character with smaller amendments such as hobbies, living arrangements, if relevant their ethnic background and physical traits, etc.
Let's quickly list some of these thing for Percy:
Lives in a one bedroom flat with his cat Sam.
Currently single, is interested in women.
Finds cooking to be therapeutic.
Enjoys horror movies.
Plays video games.
Reads a lot of fiction books.
Suffers from depression that he takes medication for.
Is shy around new people.
Wants to grow a beard but can't due to work.
These are just a few ideas that spring to mind but they can really start to flesh out Percy's personality. Some are minor some could be major, for now we don't need to worry too much about that. If they become pertinent later then flesh them out. As it stands it gives a basic feel for how the character lives and breaths day to day. The struggles, the joy, makes a reader or viewer want to know more. Some of these elements may never become relevant, we will know that when we drop him into a narrative later.
As you can see, considering more than just what a character does to directly interact with your plot immediately makes them more, gives them depth.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to bring a character to life but its a good starting point to use as a foundation.
BBC News (2004) New Doctor Who 'excited' by role. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3592515.stm (Accessed: 28/11/2016)
Doctor Who (1963- ). BBC.
Seger, L. (1990) Creating Unforgettable Characters. A practical guide to character development in: films, TV series, advertisements, novels and short stories. Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteshield Ltd
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Directed by Guillermo del Toro [DVD]. Spain: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) Directed by George Lucas. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) Directed by Mel Stuart. United States: Paramount Pictures.