Know Your Characters

This morning, while I was deep in the throes of writing, my fiancé wandered into the office. He had just finished re-watching the movie Prometheus (which neither of us liked), and he was practically buzzing with frustration.

“You know what was wrong with that movie?” Fiancé said. “Other than plot holes?”

“What?” I asked.

“The characters were inconsistent.”

He then went into an in-depth description of a specific scene. The scene unfolded as follows:

  • Our team of scientists had just traveled for eons to get to a strange new planet, hoping to find signs of alien life. After they arrive, they head down into a vast maze of caverns to explore the planet for the first time. There are three characters of note in this scene: Charlie the Main Guy, Fifield the Mohawked Punk Geologist, and Millburn the Bespectacled Biologist.
  • Main Guy, who’s initially depicted as the responsible one in charge, is the first one to take off his space helmet and breathe the alien air in the caverns—even though he’s warned against it.
  • As they explore, they come across the old space suit of an ancient alien humanoid creature. Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist seem fearful of this discovery (“Let’s get out of here!”), even though they’ve spent their entire lives and traveled millions of light years to find something like this.
  • When the ship captain announces over their mikes that a storm is coming in, Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist are the first to bail on the exploration mission and head off alone. They get lost and separated from the team as a result, even though Punk Geologist was the one who mapped the caverns in the first place.
  • Later on, though, when the two stumble upon an ancient room left behind by the alien race, Bespectacled Biologist suddenly turns brave and reckless. He goes up to a very suspicious looking alien snake creature, sticks his face right in front of it, and tries to touch it. Obviously, the snake creature eats his face.

See the problems? Inconsistent characters throughout the entire scene. Even though we had both seen the movie before, I hadn’t broken the scene down like this in my head. But I still knew immediately that something felt off about the whole sequence. It didn’t flow the way it should have, and my subconscious noticed. After we broke it all down, the flaws became crystal clear.

Fiancé went on to explain how this scene could easily have been fixed, and how the characters should have acted.

  • Punk Geologist should have been the first one to take his helmet off, while Responsible Main Guy should have been the one to caution everyone against it.
  • As they explored, Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist should have been absolutely overwhelmed with excitement at the discovery of an alien humanoid creature’s remains. After all, they have waited their entire lives to see something like this. It’s the culmination of all their hard work and research. Why weren’t they more enthusiastic?
  • When the ship captain announced a storm coming in, Responsible Main Guy should have been the one to advise that everyone return to the ship. If the goal was to separate Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist from the group, then Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist should have wanted to stay longer in the caverns with their stunning scientific discovery.
  • When Punk Geologist and Bespectacled Biologist come across the ancient alien room full of alien stuff, then, it makes sense that they would want to explore it because we’ve now established that they are the curious ones out of the group.
  • Punk Geologist, the one who up until now has been the less practical of the two, should have been the one who recklessly goes up to the alien snake creature–not Bespectacled Biologist, who in the movie had been fearful and paranoid just moments earlier.

The moral of this analysis is: Know Your Characters. When you create a character, you need to understand that character intimately. You need to know how s/he would act in any situation. If your character is a Responsible Captain, would he really be the first on his team to do something reckless? If your character is a Bespectacled Biologist, would he really be so detached when he stumbles across a huge scientific find? If he does, what kind of character development would need to happen in order to make him/her do something so against his/her character? The problem with the Prometheus scene is that the Main Guy, the Punk Geologist, and the Bespectacled Biologist had no arcs that built up to their inconsistent actions. The audience was thus left confused and unconvinced.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should stick to creating characters that always act in one way. They shouldn’t be 2-D. But if they’re going to act outside of their space, the audience has to know why. For example, in The Walking Dead, Daryl is introduced as a stereotypical redneck, a cranky, devil-may-care, selfish, and potentially violent guy who might go rogue at any minute. But Daryl has a good heart: he’ll help find a lost child, or protect someone in need. The reason this works is because the show puts logical hints in right away and then takes time to develop his arc out from there. i.e. We meet Daryl when he’s angry at the sheriff–but he’s angry mostly because he’s worried about his brother’s well-being. We immediately are exposed to the seed that exposes Daryl’s human side, and it makes sense.

Know your characters. Write out detailed character profiles if it helps. Know everything about them—what they fear, who they love, their quirks and hobbies, their vices, what annoys them, what they are passionate about, and so on. Understand them so well that when you finally throw them together in a scene, they will automatically know how to act and react to each other as well as to the environment. They’ll start behaving like real people.

And they won’t be stupid enough to touch the obviously dangerous alien snake . . . unless, of course, it’s consistent with their character.

6 Responses to Know Your Characters

  1. cait Apr 15 2013 at 7:57 am #

    Yes. Yes. YES, to the verdict on Prometheus. Obviously the snake was going to eat his face. I gave a running commentary on all the bad things that could happen and what they absolutely shouldn’t do. Did they do it? Yes. *sigh* And the rest of your post, of course, was excellent too. 😉

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 15 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Completely correct in every way. Everything flows from the characters, how they see what’s going on, how they react to it. Nothing happens in isolation from them so knowing who they are and why they do what they do is crucial to making a whole story and not just a bunch of scary bits held together with string.

    Thanks for for warning me off what is clearly a crappy movie.

  3. Alexa Y. Apr 15 2013 at 10:41 am #

    I love how you broke down an actual example for us that is very telling about why it’s important to intimately know your characters. I must confess that it’s always been something I thought about, but am not sure I studied well enough. I feel like after seeing this post, I’ve got to see my characters in a whole new light! It’s honestly got really bad consequences if their arcs go all over the place – and this post simply proves that point. Thanks for sharing and doing so in such an enlightening way!

  4. Natalie Aguirre Apr 15 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I haven’t seen this movie, but this is such great advice. And I could see the inconsistencies from your description.

    And a big congrats on being engaged to get married!

  5. Rosanna Silverlight Apr 15 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Great analysis of that scene in Prometheus! I kinda want to watch the movie again now (I didn’t really enjoy it either) just so I can pick it apart.

    I wish I’d dug deeper into my characters before starting my WIP. Going back through it now and doing revisions, I realise I’ve made SO MANY of the kind of errors that are almost textbook in style. And, weirdly, my main character is the one that suffers the most from this! Immensely frustrating.

    BUT, I’ve learned a lot through the process (and will be taking your advice on board), enough to realise that, being a pantster who doesn’t spend an awful lot of time planning, I was nailing down the story primarily through the EYES of my main character (blatantly passive), and not nearly enough through her actual ACTIONS.

    So yes, next time I’ll definitely be taking your advice and working on my characters a lot more – and, dare I say it, doing more story planning too. 🙂 Thanks for a great post!

  6. Cheyenne Apr 15 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    Your fiance NAILED it! My husband and I have brought this up several times, but never did we try to understand why it fell flat for us . . . apart from the fact that characters just felt underdeveloped and there were some pretty out-there plot turns that didn’t seem to fit. *duh!* Great reminder about the characters we write, and how not knowing them well enough will lead to readers not connecting. Thanks! 🙂

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