That One Thing

I’ll give you the TLDR of this post up front:

The best way to make a believable character is to have them do one thing, and then have them do that one thing over and over again.

That’s it. Now you know. Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, so maybe a bit more exploration of this idea is worth our time. The thing about stories is that they are simultaneously more complicated and more simple than most people think. This isn’t unique to writing. Part of getting good at anything is realizing that many of the mysterious elements aren’t all that mysterious while understanding that a lot of the elements people never really think about are the hard bits.

When it comes to characterization there’s plenty of advice about how to make memorable, distinct characters. A lot of it is good, but it often creates the impression that characterization is difficult. And it is.

But also, it isn’t.

People think they like complicated characters, but they usually don’t. They like characters with the illusion of complexity, but even that isn’t exactly true. What people really want is a character they understand. They might not like the character, but they want to feel that they know the character. And more than anything, knowing a character (often like knowing a real person) is being able to predict their behavior. And the easiest way to do that is to ask, “What would they do in 90 percent of situations?”

This usually means painting in broad strokes, but broad strokes work. The details are just that: details. It’s easy to get bogged down in those details. Too much of internet criticism is built on questioning the smallest detail? And, yes, details matter, but they are still the most flexible part of your writing process.

I’m reminded of Man of Steel, in which Superman kills a guy. Some people like that. Many don’t. And the conflict isn’t over whether or not it was justified, but whether or not it feels very much like a Superman thing to do. Even the filmmakers knew it was a big out-of-character choice meant to shock the audience. “This is not your parents’ Superman!”

Fair enough. It’s a big swing, and I can respect that. I hate it, but I can respect it. But the movie fails in one regard. It doesn’t make Superman killing feel dramatic. It doesn’t feel like this Superman, who has already demonstrated a disregard for casualties, is really doing something this Superman wouldn’t do.

Superman is fictional, of course. He will do anything the creators want him to do. The conflict in Man of Steel is one of contradictory characterization. Everyone knows Superman “Does the right thing”, but the Superman of Man of Steel isn’t that guy. It’s not that this is an innately bad choice, it’s just that we’re expected to be shocked by something Superman would never do.

It doesn’t ring true because the Superman of Man of Steel already does this sort of thing regularly. Not only does he never once take an action to protect innocent people from his destructive slugfest, but he also literally destroys Krypton’s only chance at rebirth. This Superman is a judge of life and death, and has no problem finding death as an option. The shocking swerve into murder isn’t shocking at all. It’s what he’s been doing the whole movie.

Compare this to the original ‘78 Superman movie. In the film, Superman is forthright, honest, compassionate, and honorable. He is basically invincible as well. When he does finally confront Lex Luthor he is tricked because Superman isn’t used to being in danger and he’s just not as deceptive as Luthor. His consistent characterization throughout the film is also his fatal flaw.

This is also true of Luthor, by the way. He’s arrogant, deceptive, and narcissistic. This is how he overcomes Superman but also how he fails. His cruel indifference to life leads Miss Tessmacher to betray him. Lex is arrogant enough to not even consider that she would help Superman to save her own mother.

Superman has to give his word to save Tessmacher’s mother first, even though he knows Lois is in danger. Again, terrific and straight forward characterization. His honesty is an obstacle, but we know he won’t break it. Sure enough, he isn’t able to save Lois.

Finally, his grief at her loss leads him to break a rule and push his powers to their limits. Because Superman values life and values Lois, and while in many ways he is a “boy scout”, he is not devoted to rules. He will break a rule if it saves someone.

This isn’t complicated, but it’s all their on the screen. We are shown over and over again a Superman who is merciful, compassionate, and devoted to helping others. Nothing in the movie contradicts that. That’s just good, solid writing.

And in a way, the same thing could be said of Man of Steel. Over and over again, this version of Superman doesn’t value life, doesn’t seem particularly good or honest or trustworthy. He isn’t a bad guy, but he’s definitely someone who will unleash untold destruction if he has to. Killing is just more of that. And no matter how badly he cries after doing it, we know what we’ve seen.

The old maxim of Show, Don’t Tell is overused, but if you keep showing us one thing and telling us another, we’re going to notice after a while.

It’s vital to find that one thing your character does. Once you do, have them do it over and over again. And you now have a memorable character that people will believe. Maybe not like. Maybe not want to read a whole story about. But that’s a different issue.



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