Chapter 7: Writing Great Characters

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Viewing Assignment:

Iron Man (and maybe Iron Man aren't missing a ton if you skip this one, but Iron Man 3 is pretty good if you want to dive in all the way)

Alien and Aliens (These are both actually good, though vastly different)

Shane Black has a thing about Christmas.

For those of you who don't recognize his name, he's a very successful screenwriter and director. His latest film was Iron Man 3. So, you may not know his name, but you've heard of him.

Here's the thing. Of the seven movies written by Black, five of them are set during the Christmas season. For the two non-Christmas movies, he was either a co-writer or had been hired to do a rewrite of a current script. That means that of the five scripts that he had a significant say in, 100% of them are set at Christmas.

That's a little weird. Right?

He's talked about this in interviews, about how Christmas is a unifying force that both brings characters together but also amplifies their loneliness. That's a good reason. Using a holiday to focus on your characters makes some sense. But still...100% Christmas movies? That's pretty darn weird.

But, one thing about Shane Black, all obsessions aside, he writes some amazingly interesting characters. These are people you want to spend with and find out a lot more about.

Part of how Black shows us these fascinating characters is through their setting, and the Christmas season plays into this a little. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we meet the main character trying to steal toys to give to his nephew (yeah, we actually meet him as a kid in a prologue, but never mind that). You'd think a guy stealing toys would be creepy, but he does it with a lot of charm and humor and we end up liking him. This initial interest is something that is based on what we can observe. He's stealing, but he's witty and he looks like Robert Downey Jr. So, we get interested.

Getting pulled into a character this way is like being attracted to someone when you first see them. You may think they look nice, but remember, that's not a safe thing to bet a relationship on. You are going to need more than a great introduction. Because, in characters and in dating, it's what the person does that really matters. Their decisions and actions reveal who they actually are. That's what really makes us fall for someone, whether he is in a book or she is standing in front of us.

The famed writing teacher Robert McKee talks about this difference between what we first see and how a character grows by using the terms characterization and Character. Characterization is the collection of little things that we can see and measure. These are generally things we see in the beginning: if she has an accent or a twitch or wears a special kind of shoe or walks with a limp...the list goes on for a while with all the things that fall into this category. On the other hand, Character (did you notice the big C?) is about what they do, what decisions they make...especially decisions under pressure.

The thing is, we don't get access to Character right off the bat. When we see that cute person across the room or on the first page of a book, we don't know what big important decisions they are making, and we really don't want to. Remember the surface of the pool of water from the last chapter. Chances are, you probably want to give your readers a little bit of time to admire the surface. A little bit of time with characterization is a good thing. It lets us warm up and get to fall for the character at our own pace. Give them a chance to fall in love-at-first sight with your characters, because soon, you are going to have to show them the hidden depths, and those parts aren't always pretty.

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