Saturday, June 4, 2016

Characterization and The Moral Premise

As with everything in a story or script, the arc described in the moral premise needs to be present especially in each character's characterization. Not every element of characterization needs to arc, but arc'ing a few would strengthen the story. My online Storycraft Training Series (click on the link to access the training) teaches you how to do this in many ways. As an extension to that valuable training, here is a description of characterization and how it adds to the elegancy of the moral premise method of storytelling.

You can categorize characterization in the following ways:

Appearance. This refers to wardrobe, mannerisms, and hygiene. Do your characters look like, act, and dress like who they really are? Is this correlation obvious, obscured, and ironic? Do they dress down because of their humility or are they hiding something? Do they dress up out of arrogance or to compensate for a sense of inferiority? Do they refuse to care for their health because they hate who they are? How does their appearance change or not during the course of the story? A good writer will plan this arc, and it's clarity (or it's obscurity), to subliminally reinforce the moral premise of the story.

Action: This refers to their decisions to choose one course of action vs. another normally associated with the turning points of a plot (or subplot). What does the character do? What don't they do? What do they consider doing...or not doing? Is there an indication that they would like to do something but they turn from it, or that they don't want to do something but they do it anyway? While this is easy to describe in a novel with internal monologue, it's a bit more of an art in a screenplay where you only have physical actions to describe in the action paragraph or in the nonverbal of dialogue.  (Yes, you can explain it in dialogue, but don't.) A good writer will plan this arc (as they plot the action), to explicitly reinforce the moral premise of the story.

Appearances in a movie are an important
part of characterization. Above, Chris Hemsworth
prepares for his role in HEART OF THE SEA.
Dialogue: How does the character speak in use of grammar, confidence, dialect? How do these elements contrast and compare to other characters? Can we distinguish who is talking if there are no character tags above each dialogue line? While you may think these characteristics may stay constant throughout a story, the best stories find a way to arc this element. In real life, once, during a flight from Michigan to California, I sat next to man who felt obliged to communicate a particular persona to me through a distinct pattern of speech. As we talked during the four hour trip his speech slowly changed to that of normal midwesterner. As we said our goodbyes in the LAX terminal, he had morphed into an entirely different character than the one I sat next to leaving DTW. I thought, if this can happen that quickly in real life, then such a change in a 120 minute motion picture is not unrealistic. And, if those speech patterns are logically connected to the moral premise' weakness and strength, you have a reinforced arc that will connect emotionally with audiences. A good writer will imbue this into their characterizations. 

Arc: This refers primarily to the main turning points of the main plot and multiple subplots. How does the character moral decision making change throughout the story and how does that change relate to whether they are a good guy or a bad guy? The assumption is that a good guy will always get better and a bad guy will get his comeuppance. This reflects audience expectations of characterization in a broad overall sense. But irony plays an important role in keeping an audience's attention. Can you make a character more interesting my plotting their action in a way that "stings" the audience? Does your protagonist fake her own death, but not let the audience in on the trick? Do they appear to tell the truth, but are in fact lying? Do they take actions that seem malevolent, but turn out to be merciful? Keep your audience guessing by thus enriching your character's characterization. But never, EVER, be irrational about the character's arc. Natural Law is your friend, because the turning points of a story, while perhaps manipulated by the character's values, will always arc back to nature in the end. To do otherwise will cheat and irritate your audience. 

Internal motivation/values: This refers to what drives all the action of every story. It's what the character's believe above all else will bring them happiness. While this element is mostly hidden in a screenplay, it's important that the writer have this firmly in their mind so the subtleties of writing and the choice of words and the length of sentences and dialogue and everything else subtly reflect who the character is and what he/she hope to be. Characterization originates from the character's most intimately held values....those articulated in the moral premise statement. Those values control everything they are, think and do. For characterization to ring true to your audience/reader, you must never violate the natural law connection between a value, and when acted upon the physical consequence. The consequence may be delayed, thus encouraging a vice/weakness the character has, but ultimately their internal motivation will reward them—good or bad. It is in this manner that the physical consequences (what we "see" in the story) become metaphors for the character's true self. Characterization is how we see that trueness, oftentimes before the consequence hits. A good writer will have this figured out ahead of time, or (if you're a pantser) do it by instinct. 

Introduction: In a screenplay, the introduction of a significant character is that one sentence allowed the screenwriter to tell us who the character really is...or at least at that moment who the screenwriter wants the reader to think the character is. The introduction is explicit, omniscient characterization. The writer is allowed to describe the internal motivations and values of the character hopefully by connecting it to some physical and visible element. Example: "A debonair young man whose mind was always in the gutter."  "A mindless beauty who was totally innocent of her affect on the opposite sex." "A woman whose intentions were always good but who's affect was always unwelcome." "Jacob was the syndicate boss who ordered the death of hundreds but secretly he wanted to be a weekend preacher and save souls  especially his own." Novelists have much more leeway to use a whole scene, of every chapter, to flesh out such characterization. The good writer will carefully manipulate this description to set up the character's values, arc, and appearance to entrap the reader's emotions as the story unfolds. 

Hopefully evident in those last examples (and should be evident in all the other characterization elements) is the concept of irony. "It was the best of days it was the worst of days, they were the best of people but they were entirely flawed." I think more than anything else the natural, organic incorporation of such irony in characterization is what makes people and characters interesting to an audience.

No comments: