Character vs Characterisation
When it comes to creating our characters, an important thing to keep in mind is the difference between Character and Characterisation. To quote Robert McKee, “Characterisation is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, but it is not character. True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure.” For the purpose of this article, I will use a simplified version of their definitions, with characterisation referring to anything about the external data we can get about the character. In other words, characterisation is all about what a person *is*, whereas Character is about what the character *does* and *how* they do it. Capital letter Character is revealed through a character’s actions and responses. Just like in real life.
Your character’s Character is ultimately what your story is about, it is the very foundation and the driving force of it. If you don’t know exactly what kind of a person your character is, what their Character is, you can play around by throwing them into different situations and seeing how they react to them. In fact, this is a great exercise to do any time you want to get to know your characters a little better.
What if I don't know how my character would react?
Sometimes, though, we are doing an exercise or writing a scene and we put our character in a situation but they don’t really react. We aren’t really certain how they react, their actions and motivation seem blurry. Or perhaps, we think there are many options for how they would respond in this situation.
A great question to ask in this situation is: How does the character feel? (Yep, just like a therapist.) Maybe it is clear how they feel - in which case, I think, their actions should be clear too. But maybe it isn’t - in which case, you wouldn’t be sure about their actions either. Because the thing is, actions come from EMOTIONS. To be more precise, actions are prompted by motivation and motivation comes from emotions. Even if your character is an extremely rational person, the way they will rationalise the situation will stem from their emotional response (no matter how subtle) to it.
Here are a few more questions to ask when you’re not sure how your character would (re)act (let’s call the situation “the event” - this can be something huge and life-changing or a tiny almost imperceivable action):
• What state of mind, what emotional state, and what physical state was the character in before the event happened? I find it always easier to start a scene or an exercise with something other than a neutral state. It just gives you some momentum already at the beginning. You are entering the scene at speed 40 kmph and it will be easier to get to 120 as opposed to having to start from 0. If you know what I mean.
• What is the character’s initial reaction to the event? What is their absolute first thought? This will hint at the primal emotion they feel. Do they get sad? Angry? Happy? Do they feel relieved? Excited? Disappointed? Enraged? Suspicious? Depressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Energised? Tired? So many options. While the “very first” thought will probably indicate just one, it is perfectly okay if the character feels more than just one feeling. My intention here is just to jot it down, to notice it. To get a sense of what the most prominent emotions are. Because that is what will indicate their reaction.
• What does this feeling mean to the character? What does it make them want to do? If I have answered the previous questions, I have a clearer vision of what is going on with the character internally. I am starting to get an idea of what they will be naturally inclined to do. Again, they could be hesitating between different options - there are different ways to express the same emotion. But already answering the previous questions has given me a way to get under their skin and get a better sense of what they would want to do.
Just like the above questions can help you when plotting, you can use these when revising. If something feels off about a scene, try experimenting with these three aspects:
• Change the emotional and mental state of the character before the event occurs.
• Change their initial emotional reaction.
• Change the character’s interpretation of this emotion.
Emotion provides motivation
The above process is actually the path to discovering the character’s motivation. In that sense, it can work on a micro or macro level. You can use it within a specific scene and when it comes to very practical and concrete events or when you're working on big picture stuff, like your story’s plot and character’s arc.
Another way to use it is to find out how to convey the character’s motivation to the audience. The thing is, the audience will pretty much let your character get away with anything as long as they understand why they did it. (Within your genre, style, and target audience’s spectrum, of course.) And the key to conveying character motivation is not to explain it rationally but to show the emotion that is at the core of it. If the audience doesn’t “understand” a character’s motivation, it’s not because it wasn’t intellectually explained enough. It’s that they didn’t feel it. Remember, get to the core of it. Make it primal.
Paying attention to your character’s emotions
To sum it all up, paying attention to your character’s emotions will help you a lot when it comes to their actions, reactions, decisions, goals, and motivation. On a smaller scale (within a scene) as much as on a larger scale (within the entire story). Use the above questions to explore your character’s Character and please remember that the point of this is to serve you. This approach is just one of many. If you find it helpful, that’s awesome. If you find it frustrating, don’t hesitate to let it go and find a method that works for you. The point of this is not that you’re supposed to have exact precise answers - this is not a school test. The point is to spark your imagination, get to know your character better and experiment with different options. Don’t take it too seriously and have fun with it!
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