Learning About a Character

The weakest way to reveal any character is to have that character come right out and tell the audience, “I’m unhappy” or “I feel too fat.” Not only does this feel phony, but it also isn’t very convincing.

A better way to reveal a character is to let the audience figure out that character on their own. That means the audience needs to see a character and reach a conclusion about that character.

For example, it’s easy to identify the bad guy in any movie when he or she does something horrifying. In “Die Hard,” Hans shoots the company president after the president refuses to reveal the code to unlock the vault. Now we know for sure that Hans is the villain.

It’s also easy to identify the good guy when the good guy gets unfairly treated. In “Rocky,” the opening scene shows Rocky in a boxing match and losing. Then his opponent head butts him illegally, which enrages Rocky and causes him to fight back and ultimately win.

So action is far more important than a character telling you anything. Whenever possible, show the character doing something that reveals his or her personality.

Besides action, a second way to reveal a character is to have someone else talk about that character. The more often and the more people who say the same thing about a character, the more we believe that the talked about character is a certain type of person.

In “Pulp Fiction,” there are constant references to the Marsellus Wallace as a scary person who had a man killed for massaging his wife’s foot. So when we finally meet Marsellus, we have already concluded that he’s a scary man to avoid.

So the two ways to reveal character are:

  • Action, show the character doing something that shows who he or she is.
  • Talk, have one or more people consistently talk about who a character is.

Ideally, combine these two methods. Show the character acting a certain way and have others talk about that person so it’s consistent. The more ways and more often you depict a character as a certain way, the more audiences will believe it.

Action and gossip are the two best ways to reveal character. Study your favorite movies and ask yourself how you learned who the hero and villain are. Chances are good it’s going to be through a combination of action and talk.

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