On Character

When we think about ‘characters’ we tend to think of people, sometimes about animals. Though I would suggest everything is imbued with a sense of character you just need to find it or create it. You might recall my musings on local bushland as a character in it’s own right.

You know what – cafes have character too. I know this because my favourite local cafe died recently. Actually there’s a cafe there in that same building, but it has new management and it’s become a completely different place. In a very real sense it is no longer the cafe I fell in love with. The sensuous jazz that once filled the building has been replaced with top 40 radio with loud obnoxious songs with jibberish lyrics and clunky screaming ads. (Once you’ve enjoyed your mocha with Sarah Vaughan having to sip it to the sounds of Lady Gaga is no picnic.) The seats and plates and cups have been matched and colour coordinated, red and white everywhere you look, they remind me of the way toadstools are depicted in children’s picture books. The plates used to be white, simple, they used to be a foil for the delicious food that rested on top of them. There are shiny new appliances, and the new owners and staff are genuinely lovely, but I mourn for what I’ve lost.

It’s funny how we tend to be aware of character mostly when it changes. I think of The Last Airbender movie. Admittedly I’ve only seen the trailer, but as I watch it I’m struck by how faithfully they’ve recreated specific action sequences from the animation on which the live action movie is based. But I also notice that the characterisation seems to be a little underwhelming. Saving the world might be the goal for their great adventure, but it’s the characters we become endeared with and that’s mostly because of their quirks. Aang, for all his superpowers, is still a basically a kid and in the animation he has a youthful enthusiasm that we as viewers enjoy, not to mention his sincere but often awkwardly expressed feelings for Katara. His talents as an ‘airbender’ show us what he can do, but how interacts with his friends and enemies show us who he is. This to me is what character is all about.

I think too of a kid’s show my niece enjoyed when she was younger, In The Night Garden. The show is aimed at quite young children, and the characters don’t really speak – at least they don’t use any words adults might recognise. Certain sequences are repeated in every single episode and an unseen narrator introduces the characters and situations. Yet, oddly, you are left with a strange sense of who exactly these characters are – what makes them unique, what they value (a security blanket in the case of Iggle Piggle for example), and how they interact with each other. Creating characters isn’t always easy and to do it without the use of dialogue is particularly impressive.

Cliches are bad, right? Well I want to suggest that personal cliches are useful in establishing character continuity. I want to go further and say your own personal cliches as a writer are the corner posts of what we might call ‘your voice.’ The particular way you like to combine your words, that thing you do with the semicolon. We get to know these characters – and perhaps more importantly – we come to expect specific things about them. Ocassionally they’ll do something to surprise us, perhaps as the plot develops, but mostly they’ll reinforce our understandings about them. The best example I can think of when it comes to personal cliches is The Simpsons. Can you imagine Mr. Burns without thinking about him say, “Release the hounds!”? Can you imagine Homer visiting the Kwik-E-Mart without hearing Apu exclaim, “Thank you! Come again!”?

Can you think of some characters – be they fictional, living, inanimate – that have left an impression on you? Leave me a comment.

2 comments… add one
  • Henry

    Can you think of some characters – be they fictional, living, inanimate – that have left an impression on you?

    One of the more interesting is the computer HAL9000 in 2001, IMO it has the most personality out of all the characters.

  • The character of Octavia Frost from the novel The Nobodies Album really sticks with me, maybe because she’s a writer. The creator of Octavia, Carolyn Parkhurst, imagined her so fully that she actually as an “Octavia” website within her own website. Octavia’s quirk is so writerly–she wants to revise her life, make up for past mistakes, but instead revises the endings of all her novels.

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