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What is a Story: Discovery of a Character - Finding, Building, Creating

Maximus, the general who becomes a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an Emperor.


One thing Hollywood--and Indie filmmakers of course--know how to do, is split the human race into good and evil. Star Wars stands at the pinnacle of the Force vs. the Dark Side. In fact, it may very well be that's what stories are about: good vs. evil. Character is by no means so simplistic, but the theme of good vs. evil is certainly a good starting point for understanding character as the heart of any story.

From an acting perspective, one of the most famous books on character is Building A Character by Constantin Stanislavski. The Writer's Store features dozens of books on character, and the question is, do writers (actors) build, create or discover character?

Like the proverbial question in songwriting--which came first, lyric or melody--so it goes with story and character.

In the telling of a story, the following is a blueprint, so to speak, of what character is and what it can be. In coming weeks/months, there will be more in depth exploration of story, plot, character, dialog and the other major and minor structural elements, along with interviews and focus on specific movies.

  • Put a character into a situation
  • Show conflict, internal and external
  • Challenge a character
  • Character arch - how a character changes; grows
  • Weaknesses/Strengths
  • What do characters want and how do they get it?
  • What are the obstacles to getting what the character wants?
  • How does a character react/respond to a situation, another character?
  • How does a character make decisions or react/respond to when they are made from another character?
  • How is character revealed through situations, choices, decisions?
  • What motivates a character?
  • A character goes on a quest, pursues a goal, overcomes obstacles, defeats an enemy, wins or loses, falls in and out of love, maybe even dies.
  • How does a character look? What kinds of cloths do they wear? Beautiful? Ugly? Homely? Fat?
  • What is a character's job, family, friends, enemies, status?
  • What is a character's past, present and future?
  • How does a character think; feel?
  • What are a character's fears?
  • Does the character have a great sense of humor?
  • Who are the character's friends, relatives, co-workers, enemies, lovers, teachers, bosses, mentors?
  • What is a character's point of view: Positive, negative, neutral, caring, apathetic, lucky/unlucky, fateful.

Many characters are not only victims, but as in real life, can play the role of victim: Why does/did this happen to me? In Phenomenon, John Travolta's character just could not accept having been suddenly and extraordinarily zapped by a bolt of light from out of the sky. It was an interesting exploration into the powers we wish we had, but how such powers turn us into freaks.

It's not what happens but how you handle it that determines character in real life. Stories are very much mirrors to real life, contrary to the belief that fiction is all make belief.

What happens when something or someone turns from positive to negative, starts doing drugs, turns to sex, becomes a criminal, gets sick, becomes a soldier, falls from grace, loses a job, gets married/divorced, kills someone, witnesses a murder, falls in love, becomes rich or loses everything, discovers a cure, designs an invention, gets caught in a scandal, succumbs to corruption?

As in the definition of a story: "A flawed character overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reach a desired goal," character is revealed by the choices/decisions a character makes to reach a desired goal.

Another variation on the above theme is "take an ordinary character and put them in extraordinary circumstances." The problem with that definition is that not all characters are ordinary. Some have super powers or have historical significance (Lincoln).


In real life, most people want to live their lives free from conflict and trauma. The desire is naive, since rarely does anyone skate through live without problems, making mistakes, or something happening they wish didn't. Entrepreneur gurus continuously stress the need for taking risk as a requirement for success. Meanwhile, we have thrill seekers, who can't seem to get enough thrill out of doing the most dangerous things.

Actors will say it's not their job to judge a character. Judgement prevents them from being the character they're trying to portray. Evil characters don't necessarily think they are evil. However, the ones who do know what they do is evil, are often the most exciting characters to create.

Something is at stake and the stakes just keep getting higher.

Personality quirks define character: Nicholson stepping over cracks in the sidewalk in As Good As It Gets; Clint Eastwood's thin cigar in Good, Bad, and the Ugly; Harrison Ford's fear of snakes in Indiana Jones, and of course, James Bond's martini--shaken, but not stirred.

Living with the character, similar to how a child might play with an imaginary friend, is a great way to get to know characters. You can talk to them, go for a car ride, tell secrets, take a walk on a beach, play a game, fight together in an imaginary war, make love.

Imagine a character type in any given situation, like a criminal in a plane crash, a CEO during a company collapse, a doctor taken hostage, a child facing a monster.

Most people belong to some kind of group: A political affiliation, a sports team, a health club, a "fight club," a school, charity, Ku Klux Klan. Others have few friends or may even be loners.

There are lists of personality traits on dozens of psych-based websites, but picking and choosing is a clumsy way to go about building/creating a character. It's not necessary to build a complete human being. Multi-dimensional may suffice. Race, color, sex, and all the other usual demographics are a given when first defining character. The following examples pale compared to the wealth of personality traits seemingly endless: Politics, religion, intelligence, social status, arrogant, happy, larger-than-life, fat, gorgeous, sexy, rich/poor, determined, apathetic, kind, cruel, judgemental, anti-social, psychotic, evil, heroic, puritanical, greedy, honest, liar, athletic, compulsive.

The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Every writer should have a copy of the DSM IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

There are 1000s of jobs besides professions: Working in a coal mine, a cashier, construction, maid, or, unemployed. Some people are identified by the kinds of jobs they work. Others will claim the work they do to earn a living does not define who they are.

Expect the unexpected: A coward becomes brave, a Godfather confesses to a high level priest (Godfather III), a con artist rescues dozens from a burning plane (Hero), a fighter becomes overweight (Raging Bull), an ordinary housewife shoots someone (Thelma and Louise).

Some people are brutally judgemental (Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets. However, in Lethal Weapon and the string of numerous Black/White buddy movies, race is not even an issue, not between the two leading characters, that is. Liam Neeson's character in Schindler's List is sympathetic towards the very Jews he seeks to exploit...or is forced to exploit.

Long Kiss Goodnight

The camera initially focuses on the character we will get to know, but we won't know who they are until something happens. Geena Davis slowly discovers she was a former highly trained secret agent who lost her memory in Long Kiss Goodnight. Clark Kent becomes Superman. Tom Hank's character is marooned on an island in Cast Away. An innocent man is wrongfully convicted (Shawshank Redemption). Jack Nicholson goes mad in The Shining (ironically, in Cuckoo's Nest he goes quite sane).

Movie genre influences how complex and how much a character develops. Yet, in an action/adventure, for instance, action heroes are by no means short on character. In fact, we instantly know who they are. When they're on a mission, character is right up front. Bruce Willis's character in the Die Hard franchise drinks and has marital problems. Historical movies much is already known about a character (Lincoln), yet movies (stories) allow us to watch our favorite historical characters go through changes.


Cardboard characters are not very interesting. There needs to be something about the character the audience can identify with, or even more so, care about. But do we really care about evil characters? Do we care about Al Pacino's character in Scarface, Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven, or Darth Vader in Star Wars? Now irony enters the scene, as audiences clearly love to watch evil people do evil things. But again, Pacino's character in Scarface doesn't see himself doing wrong. How absurd it would be if he suddenly realized, "Oh my God, I'm a drug dealer...I hurt people."

Here's a random list of more traits to consider (does not include cartoon character traits--article coming soon):

Voice: Deep and ominous, sexy, high-pitched, poetic, well spoken, soft, fast.

Language: Gang talk, scientific, medical, business, multi-lingual, accent.

Habits: Drugs, sex, pacing, smoking, food binges, work, taking out the garbage, vulgar, neurotic, cries alot, organized, sloppy, meticulous, compulsive, goes to the same places.

Types: Gothic, hippie, business-like, nerd, jock, bully, Goddess, prince, warrior, farmer

Home: A loving family, evil uncle, routine, noisy kids, suburban, urban, country, divorced, apartment, mansion, castle, farm, betrayal, secrets, alcholism, brothers as best friends.

Education: None, dropout, professor, high school, trade, self-taught, street, extensive reading, watching TV


Job: Menial labor, factory, retail, customer service, maid, waitress, prostitute, teacher, cop, celebrity, journalist, artist, dancer, scientist, doctor, priest

Plus, the qualitative aspects of jobs: Climbing the ladder, talented, leader, hating a job, hating a boss, in love with a co-worker

Limitations: Physically weak, mentally unstable, stupid, handicapped, always fearful

Hobbies: Astronomy, stamp collector, board games, golf, dancing, gambling, fishing, mountain climbing

Animals: Dog, cat, bird, fish, animal rights, champion horse, snake, friends with wild animals, hate animals, allergic, vegetarian?

Favorite things: Family mementos, a ring, themeparks, walks in the park, books, movies, songs, TV shows, heroes and heroines, quotes, a chair, a car, a favorite drink

Goals: Win a race, kill the enemy, destroy the monster, catch a crook, save the planet, make someone happy, get rich, find a cure, reveal corruption, conquer

Fears: Monsters, demons, ghosts, aliens, the night, losing, an evil force, a boss, a spouse, the unknown, girls, men, talking, going outside, the neighbor, an abductor, aliens, saying something stupid, reprisal?

Likes/Dislikes (Loves/Hates): Heroes and heroines? Lovers, friends, relatives? The world? Other nationalities? The way things are? Little things? Society? Sunday mornings? Saturday nights? Dancing? Art? Job? Boss? Themselves? A city?

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