As a writer I’m interested in how we can reveal our character as compellingly as possible. I have blogged before on how I think we can reveal what is unique about our character in our stories. I often use the analogy of the ‘scale’ of a character in teaching. In this metaphor, a good storyteller penetrates the layers of a character right from the very top of their scale (that is in terms of their surface features, or what we would see about this character if we first meet them) right down to the bottom of their scale (which is their ‘core’).
The core of a character might for instance concern their deepest darkest fears, motivations and principles which – when all else is stripped away, still remains of this character. I would argue that the character has to undergo some kind of deprivation or stress to reveal the whole range of their scale and I can think of many examples where a great work of drama does just that. The example that always springs to mind for me is the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. In this, the ‘scale’ of Batman’s character is revealed when he has his butler, Albert, his house, his money and in the end even his physical prowess stripped of him, when his nemesis Bane breaks his back. This is a gripping place to take the character to – and as writers it can sometimes feel as if we are a tad sadistic towards them!
I think a great way to reveal the character is through inserting into the story components that reveal a lot of their ‘scale’. For instance, the reader gets a good sense of a character if we know they have a personal mantra. In the sitcom Only Fools And Horses Del Boy’s mantra ‘He Who Dares Wins’ is very revealing of him as a person. It not only makes fun of his pretensions, with it having been the SAS motto, but it also reveals a lot about his nature. He is daring, he is aspirational, he has gusto.
We can also reveal our characters by bringing their inner world into the story. Having some kind of art that reveals our character (within the art of a story), or what I call ‘art within art’ offers a great way to do this.
In the film ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (spoiler alert) Tom Ripley kills the man he is obsessed with, Dickie Greenleaf, during an ugly altercation in a rowing boat.
Later in the film, masquerading as Dickie, he goes to the opera. In a particularly gripping scene that reveals Tom’s character we observe as Tom watches Lensky’s Aria played out on stage, during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
In a duel within the opera, Lensky goes overboard and ends up committing murder, just like Tom has earlier on the boat.
At this point the camera zooms in as Tom is visibly moved by the spectacle of the corpse on the stage, the blood (resembled by spreading ribbons) pouring from him.
Here we gain a deep insight into Tom’s character, by seeing how moved he is at this spectacle. The character Lensky doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions but is mourning the death of his illusions, which have been dispelled with this killing. Just as Tom, too, is now confronted with the death of Dickie, which has brought an end to an illusory way of life that he so desperately needed; a life in which he was Dickie’s closest friend. Art (in this case Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin) is packaged within art (The Talented Mr Ripley) to give us a deep insight into Ripley’s character.
In Part Two of this blog I will turn to some literary examples of how art has been presented within art to offer character insight as well.