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Character. You always hear actors and writers and movie critics talking about character. Do you know what they’re talking about? Do they know what they’re talking about? I think most of them do not. You see, many people think they know what character is; but I’m not sure that they do.

The reason I think this is that most people think that character is a collection of traits. They think, “Napoleon Dynamite, wow, what a great character,” because they see the glasses and nerdy behavior as character.

Napoleon Dynamite

Guess what? Those are character traits. They’re not character. Actors, when they’re researching a role, often invent elaborate histories to help them develop the character. But that’s not character development, that’s back story. Many writers follow the advice of writing books and writing classes when creating a character by asking questions like, “what does the character look like?” or “what is this character’s greatest fear?” or “what are the flaws of this character?”. But those questions have nothing to do with character.

Character creation

So what is character then? The dictionary defines character as “the combination of qualities and features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another.” So what does that mean? Well, for starters, it rules out looks, at least for writers. Character is not the way one looks or the way one dresses. Why? Because you could give another person Napoleon Dynamite’s hair, glasses and clothes and still distinguish that person from Napoleon Dynamite.

So what makes up character then? It’s not what one likes. Giving your character an obsession over teddy bears or a fear of snakes is not character because many people like teddy bears and are afraid of snakes. So what is character?

Character is what a person says or does in any given situation. That’s it. That’s what distinguishes on person from another. The words they say, actions they take and their reactions to events. That’s all character is.

“But what about the character’s appearance?,” you might ask, or “what about their lifelong dream to become a world figure skating champion?” Forget it. Neither of them is character. The character will look like the actor and whatever cosmetic flourishes the director chooses to bestow on the actor. And how the character pursues their lifelong dream to become a world figure skating champion will define that character. The dream itself is just a dream.

As for actors, they do not need to “become” the character as so many Method actors strive to do. There is no need to walk around the set in character. The actor’s job is to say the lines and communicate the story to the audience. The audience cannot know what an actor is thinking or feeling at any one point. It’s all an illusion. Besides, the emotion of what the actor is feeling is irrelevant in movies. It’s the emotions of the audience that is important. The illusion of character is created by the simple and uninflected direction of actors cut together in shots in the context of a story.

How does that help you as a writer or filmmaker to develop character? It’s simple. It all comes back to story. Your characters will form in the minds of the reader or the audience when they see the people in your story act and react to the events that unfold. The characters that take actions towards achieving their goals will be conceived as strong while the characters that merely react to events will be seen as passive and weak.

Have you ever gotten caught up in a good book and enthralled by one of the characters in it? Then when you see the movie, you ask, “how could they get the character of _____ so wrong?”. The answer is simple. The audience wants to be involved in the story. Thus the more specific you are on character traits, appearances and quirks, the less successful the character is in a movie. Because the more detailed and specific you are on film, the less the viewer can fill in the blanks and create a character in their minds.

Take for instance, the character of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. Aside from the European page boy hair cut, there are not a lot of details given about this character.

Anton Chigurh

For the most part, the character is kind of a blank. But his actions and his words, especially the conversation between him and gas station attendant, allow you to form your own ideas about the character in your head. The result is a character that has captured the imagination of the audience. You want proof? Take a look at all the Best Supporting Actor awards that Javier Bardem has swept this year. Bardem was intelligent enough and brave enough to play the role simply, and thus allow the audience to create the character in their minds. Focus on telling a good story and trust in your audience to help you create the characters.

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