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Rapping On Writing - Character issues . . .

Following up on Rapping On Writing - The Dialogue Mix . . . , let’s get into character, shall we?

A big thing popular now in a lot of screenwriting books is using the Enneagram as a tool for creating characters.

It has a base of nine personality types with strengths and weaknesses in each, which allows for combinations therein.

It reads, unfortunately, a lot like a horoscope.

Now don’t take that the wrong way, I like my horoscope, I read it every day. But not every Capricorn acts the same way, nor do we all make a load of money on the day when it reads - money to come your way today.

And the Enneagram totally ignores, in my mind, the great impact CULTURE has upon character.

Simply put, a guy in Iowa will react differently than a guy in New York. Even if they take the same action in response to the same situation (like, pick up a gun and go after a bad guy) it won’t be in exactly the same way, with the same response. The Iowa guy will not speak, or feel, the same that a New York guy does.

Shoot, a guy from Brooklyn reacts differently than a guy from Manhattan.

There will be great shades of different color, because of culture and also CLASS.

A rich guy acts different than a poor guy.

A poor Irish kid will not react like Harry Potter would, in a situation.

The Enneagram doesn’t really address that, in my mind. It’s not a bad starting point, but if all you do with your character is the Enneagram, I think you’re doing your characters a disservice.

The best thing on character I’ve ever read came from a study on FBI profilers, the guys who began the Behavioral Science Unit - Which I was researching for a script on serial killers called CREATURES OF APPETITE (which was good, but I finished it right before the serial killer explosion that happens every week on TV, heh).

Here’s thing, when tracking serial killers, profilers had an equation.

WHAT plus WHY equals WHO

I recently shared this with a friend, who really dug it.

To me, this is one of the most valuable equations I’ve ever gotten.

The equation works like algebra - if you know two of them, you can figure out the third unknown factor.

And it frees us to include issues such as age, class and culture, which we would absolutely have to, in order to answer the question fully.

What + Why = Who

You can do that with all the characters in your story, and in a way it doesn’t matter if your share all you discover (because it doesn’t matter if we know why the waitress is a waitress, but it might help if YOU, the author, knew it) with the audience, unless it’s necessary.

And sometimes just the process of discovering what the unknown integer might be is part of the fun.

Over at Mystery Man’s place, a commenter asked about Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.

He said it didn’t matter than we didn’t know why Lector did what he did.

I would agree, it doesn’t always matter, but then again, I don’t believe that there’s no answer to it, nor is it his movie.

Let’s break it down.

In Lector’s case, the unknown integer standing in for X, it would read:

What plus X equals Who

We knew what he did, we knew who he was, but we didn’t know why? Right?

Buffalo Bill, in the same movie, was:

What plus Why = X . . . because we didn’t know who he was for the first half of the film.

And he was arguably as scary as Lector.

During the film, we solved Bill’s, and solved Clarice’s, which had a far interesting equation at the beginning -

Clarice’s equation was:

What plus X equals Y

And Hannibal solved X (do you still hear the lambs screaming, Clarice?) and Clarice discovered Y on her own, in the basement with Bill in the dark.

Clarice finds Y at the end of the film, and that’s why the movie is hers, not Bill’s, not Lector’s . . . it belongs to Clarice and her screaming lambs.

We don’t solve Hannibal, at least for the audience, he’s left with an unknown integer for that movie.

Lector is such a great WHO and WHAT that he almost overwhelmed them, but really he’s only part of the film, it’s Clarice’s story.

I love that film, it’s a great one.

I don’t even think that, as a movie-goer, I need all the the integers identified . . . it didn’t bother me that Lector wasn’t solved, in fact, it caused me to think about it on my own.

Sometimes asking great questions is all we need to do in a story, right?

I do think the story’s characters needs at least TWO to be interesting, and some stories have different focuses . . .

Some movies are about discovering WHO (Jason Bourne films), some are about the WHY (The Sixth Sense, perhaps, that might be a bad example, but you get it), and some (like the Bond films) are really about the WHAT.

So if you’re creating a character that you know you KNOW in your head, you have the WHO, you simply need to reverse engineer the equation to the What and the Why?

Sometimes you know WHAT but you don’t know WHY or WHO, and then you’ve got a load of work in front of you.

But I really believe that the equation is very helpful. You can zip it back and forth in any direction, and it fits every type and every story.

The Enneagrams aren’t a bad place to start, I mean, all the Psych stuff is valuable, but for characters in stories, I really believe the beginning and the end is:

WHAT plus WHY equals WHO

Fun, right?

BTW, see this Disclaimer . . .

2 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Character issues . . .”

  1. Mystery Man Says:

    Great post! There’s also something to be said about preserving the mystery about a character, because an audience doesn’t always need to know why. In fact, audiences are probably more drawn to characters because they’re not given an explanation, ya know?

    I love that what + why = who.

    That’s great, man. I knew I’d learn some good shit from you. Hehehe…


  2. Anthony Peterson Says:

    Thats gold my friend, pure gold. If “What” is an unjust criminal execution + a “Why” being to save someones life, then the WHO can only be Christ or a Jesus-type figure. Gold.

    Again, put a truly honest, uncompromising, peaceful man into a totally corrupt situation where the stakes are high enough - then the only “What” can be that our truly honest men will be put to death. This happened in Nazi Germany - most people compromised, but the few who spoke out were put to death.

    What + Why = Who. As sure as the sun rises each morning.

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