How do you write GREAT characters?
I’ve struggled with this question for years, and every time I thought I was making progress, I was brought back to the same insoluble paradox–a paradox that begins and ends with this character:
Allow me to elaborate:
What’s the most common character related term you hear in fiction?
Others candidates include: character FLAWS, ROUND characters, THREE DIMENSIONAL characters, COMPLEX characters. All these elements ideally add up to a fascinating and deep persona that resonates with the audience on a fundamental level.
Then, there’s Kramer.
Kramer, who doesn’t develop throughout nine years of weekly stories. Kramer, who isn’t as flawed as much as ODD. Kramer, who is completely flat, entirely two dimensional, and utterly simple…
AND he’s one of the most beloved characters in the history of television.
What do people LOVE about this character so devoid of tragic flaws, depth, and complexity?
The answer is simple:
People love how KRAMER Kramer is.
Everything he does is SOOO fully Kramer! It’s not because his character is emotionally rich, not because he’s intellectually stimulating, and I don’t think it’s even because his humor. Opening a door really fast is not funny, but every time Kramer makes his trademark entrance, the live studio audience erupts in applause–to the point that the cast actually complained about it throwing off their comedic timing! Why do Seinfeld fans LOVE his entrance so much? Because it sums up his character so perfectly. It’s the EXACT kind of quirk that a real personality like his would have.
If you look at Kramer’s storylines, what makes them so memorable and iconic is how perfectly they express his character: levels in his apartment, getting a hole in one on a whale, improvising commercials for Hennigans, Little Jerry Seinfeld, going back to work after a 12-year strike, fusilli Jerry, storing his blood in Jerry’s fridge, the epic test drive, impersonating a police inspector–SO many of these moments we enjoy because we just LOVE seeing Kramer being the most Kramer he can possibly be!
Here’s the principle:
People love characters with personalities that are powerfully defined by their actions.
Put another way:
Great characterization makes great characters.
Take Sherlock–another undeniably beloved character.
Granted, people DO love this character for his flaws as well as his sheer coolness factor, but his most notable recent interpretation by Stephen Moffat and Benedict Cumberbatch give us so many moments that are just so deliciously SHERLOCK that it drives fans wild:
Sherlock not knowing how the solar system works because “What does that matter?”, Sherlock asking John for a pen without realizing he’d been gone for an hour, Sherlock shooting a pistol at the wall because he’s bored, stuff he says (“I’m not a psychopath, Anderson. I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”), his interactions with Mrs Hudson (“A nice murder. That’ll cheer you up.”), his interactions with John (“You, being all mysterious with your cheek bones and turning your coat collar up so you look all cool.”). We love all these moments because they so SHARPLY define and sum up who Sherlock is. Even when we see him mistreat Molly, while we’re not happy about it, it works so WELL with the character that we can only sit back and say “Whoa, that was just SOO Sherlock.”
Let’s look at another favorite: the Joker.
When the Joker shows the gangleaders of Gotham his “magic trick”, we don’t love it because it demonstrates the Joker’s flaws or complexity, we love it because it reveals his CHARACTER. We’re spellbound by his creepy shaky terrorist video because it’s SO Joker. It’s the same reason we love that he burns the money he so brazenly demanded. It’s the same reason we love him detonating the hospital dressed as a nurse. It’s all SO quintessentially JOKER.
Often, when we see this technique done successfully, it’s with characters who have unique and unusual personalities, but it doesn’t have to be. For example–or really a barrage of examples–look at the Harry Potter books.
Many of the characters in Harry Potter are stereotypes–personalities we’ve seen time and time again. But what makes them so beloved, what makes them FEEL unique and real is that however generic these characters might sound on paper–the brainy girl, the rich bully, the passionate team captain–their personalities are POWERFULLY defined by every action they do:
Rita Skeeter’s slimy condescending manner and her heavily penciled eyebrows SO sum up the cutthroat gossip journalist persona.
Umbridge’s passive aggressive “hem hem”, her cringe-worthy sweetness, and her cruel detention methods all create a PERFECT picture of the awful but invincible bureaucrat.
Every interaction between the Dursley’s and anyone from the wizard world SO epitomizes what it is to be fun hating, proudly suburban, and stubbornly Muggle.
I could go on and on about Snape’s every expression and line of dialogue.
Don’t get me started on Luna Lovegood.
The list goes on: Neville, Hagrid, Dumbledore, the twins, Mrs Weasley, McGonnagal, Trelawny, Bellatrix, Mad-Eye Moody, Lockheart–the books are FILLED with these simple characters whose personalities are so POWERFULLY expressed in their every action that they come to LIFE with no depth or dimension at all!
In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if the character is round or flat, complex or simple, if there is or isn’t any development throughout the story–great CHARACTERIZATION makes great characters. This isn’t to say flaws and development have no place. On the contrary, character depth and growth DO make for great characters as well, and they play a significant role in plot and theme. My point is that to depend on these factors alone ignores a world of character creation that has led to some of the most beloved characters in fiction.
SO, if you’re looking for a new strategy for creating compelling characters, take a break from complexity, take a break from tragic flaws, take a break from development–just make a character that SHINES! Embrace simplicity, embrace stereotypes, embrace the two dimensional and define the HECK out of your character in everything he or she does!