True character resides in the little details. And these details don’t even need to make it to the page or the silver screen, just as long as you know them and they sculpt the man or woman or other you wish to portray. There are some obvious traits to address, like what their favorite food is or what their living situation’s like, but I have some not-so-obvious ones I’d like to share with you.
- What are your characters’ eating habits? I encountered this question when reading Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno, a sort of Aristotle’s Poetics for Dummies. Tierno suggests asking “How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think about food a lot? What do your characters’ refrigerators look like?” (Tierno, 125) to determine character. Desire forms the bedrock of all characters, and there’s no desire more primal and (in this time and in most countries, anyways) more customizable. How often does she do takeout? Appetizers or dessert as restaurants? How does he deal with those flimsy things in popcorn that get stuck in his teeth?
- What jokes does he/she not get? Ask this, and the character in your mind is confused, annoyed, or pretending to laugh. How he/she got there, now that’s where you learn about the world your character lives in and how he functions in it. No one lives in the vacuum of space, after all, not yet anyways. And this isn’t jokes she doesn’t think are funny, they’re jokes that she thinks could never be funny. “I don’t get it,” followed by “What does her hair color have to do with anything?” or “Why would you laugh at someone’s dead child?” or “Who’s Barack Obama?”
- Is your character good with kids? Again, plonck them in a situation and see what happens. How characters treat other people is fine, dandy, and a bag of chips, but kids occupy a special place in collective consciousness as aliens trying to learn our human ways while telling us the fable of their people (starring Optimus Prime and Darth Vader). Does she clown around with kids, acting the fall-gal? Does he moralize around them? Does she grab the tiniest one and smack the other kids in the face with it? The possibilities are endless!
- What’s their hypocrisy? By the time I get around to answering this question, I know that I’ve formed the core internal conflict my character must face. How aware your character is of this flaw is up to you, because that’ll also define your hero or heroine. It also sets up a truism when writing characters: no one always reacts to any situation with the same defining characteristic. Even your muscle-bound henchman whose motto is “Punch it until it goes away” may hesitate when he finds a kitten sleeping on his breakfast cereal that morning. Writing character is a struggle between what an audience expects/might do (the bland, reasonable approach) vs. what an interesting human being might do (the quirky, individualistic approach). Character is sometimes more than consistency