“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”

Of late, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about character.  I’m going to be launching a comic soon and debuting new shows and videos.  I’ve had plenty of time to think about it.  And there are a couple of things I’ve learned that a lot of other people miss when they think of good writing and characterization.

Example.  We’ve all met at least one person who insists that some cypher of a character is really well-written and fleshed out and deep.  And when pressed to tell you what their character is they often end up telling you the character’s backstory.  Exposition is not characterization.  To really understand someone, you have to know how they think and more importantly how they feel.

Character is defined by the choices they make and those choices are informed by their feelings about everything else that has happened to them.  If you spend time on the internet, sooner or later you’re going to run into one or more loudmouths who insist on repeating their banal platitude, “Reals before feels.”  There’s another blog post in there, but that’s for another day.  The phrase itself indicates a strange sort of contempt for the human emotional spectrum in spite of the fact that it provides us with the lenses we need to interpret the world around us and our reactions to it.

Take for example Captain America.  Steve Rogers is the world’s youngest 90-year-old because he was frozen in a coma since the 1940’s.  That isn’t characterization, that’s backstory.  The fact that he misses the people he left behind, feels afraid that there’s no home to come back to, that no matter well he adapts to life in the modern world it may not be where he belongs?  That is character.

Judy Hopps being a rabbit isn’t character, but how she feels about the way her society perceives and judges her for the way she was born is.  Dr. Manhattan being the closest analog anyone has to a god in his reality isn’t character, but his feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result are.  Aragorn being a royal scion isn’t character, but his reluctance to take the throne for fear of the corrupting influence of power is.

Not only is backstory not character, but neither is physical appearance or interpersonal relationships.  If you want these details to tell us something, then we have to know how the character feels about him.  Plenty of comedies have a fat best friend, but if we have no idea how he feels about his weight, then it serves no purpose other than to make him look different from the other characters.  Worse yet, many people still mistake superficial details like fat, redhead or gender for character.  If you’ve ever read any gaming webcomics, think of how many of them feature a lazy, slapdash female character whose entire gimmick is that she is a girl who plays games.

All of this is important because it determines how the story unfolds.  Do you think Travis Bickle would have worked well as a protagonist for The Shawshank Redemption?  How about Charles Foster Cain as a major player in His Girl Friday?  Would the Gormenghast novels be better if the villainous Steerpike was replaced with Patrick Bateman?  Don’t underestimate just how important it is to properly match character to plot.

All of this of course begs the question, “If that’s how not to write, then how do I write a good character?”  That’s a good question, hypothetical reader I just made up.  One that I hope to answer in a later blog post.

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