Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - On Character, Ya Gotta Have Soul

Customer: Do you have Soul?
Rob: That all depends.

I’ve been having a series of great internet discussions on character with my internet friend Mystery Man, and he’s working on an article of his own which I highly recommend once he posts it.

And my best buddy Ato (the Man Who Would Be King) Essandoh and I recently delved deep into the idea of the role of character in story, which led to some surprising personal insights.

And they both inspired me to start a series of my own on the subject of character in writing.

I’ve written before about Character issues, obviously, but let’s take it a step further.

Let’s get into the real character shit, shall we?

Before we begin, simple question.

Why do you watch movies?

Why do you read a book or listen to music?

What’s your favorite television show and why? Why do you watch it?

Answer to all of the above:

To be moved.

By moved, of course, I mean moved emotionally. We read/watch/listen because of how those experiences make us feel.

Rob: Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

Your favorite movie, whatever it may be, you watch again and again because of how you feel when you watch it. Right?

This is all elementary stuff for most writers, I know, but we need to establish a base-line here for the discussion.

You don’t watch necessarily for the visual effects, you don’t watch for a particular movie star or director, you watch to be moved emotionally.

You may THINK you’re going to see a movie for the cool effects or the handsome star or hot director, but the minute, the MINUTE they fail to move you emotionally, you’re done with them and onto the next flavor of the month, right?

I mean, BATTLEFIELD EARTH had some really cool effects in it, great explosions.

No one went to see it. Why?

Judd Nelson used to be a big movie star. As was Rob Lowe.

Can’t really say that now.


The fella who directed HEATHERS was considered the Next Big Thing. Until the Next Big Thing turned into Hudson Hawk.

Barry: Holy shite. What the fuck is that?
Dick: It’s the new Belle and Sebastian…
Rob: It’s a record we’ve been listening to and enjoying, Barry.
Barry: Well, that’s unfortunate, because it sucks ass.

You get where I’m going with this?

Okay. We line up to see certain actors and actresses, writers and directors, but what we’re really doing is watching movies to be moved. Got it.

And certain actors and artists move us very well (U2 rarely fails to deliver) and as long as they do, we’re fans of theirs. When they stop doing so, we cease.

So HOW are we moved, how does that happen?

Breaks down like this, for me.

A STORY is What Happens.

The CHARACTERS are Who It Happens To.

A PLOT is How It Happens.

All three are equally important, but in my eye, one has a slight advantage over the other.


Many people confuse plot for story, but the story is what happens, and the plot is how that story is constructed.

Like, we have bodies, and our bodies have skeletons, dig?

So if our bodies are the story,and the plot is the skeleton, where, in that metaphor, does character fit in?

Characters are the SOUL of the story.

The emotion of the story comes from the characters. Even films without people in them, I’m thinking of THE BEAR, about animals, we tend to infuse the character of THE BEAR as human, with human emotions, in telling the story.

Think about that. You watched March of the Penguins, right? And didn’t you get caught up in the emotional survival of those birds trying to raise their chicks? Without their plight for love and happiness, you have nothing.

We need to be involved with the characters, be interested in their emotional world. Living and dying on the ice is emotional.

We don’t even need to agree with them on their choices, we only need to believe their emotional world is real.

If it’s real for them, we buy it.

Character is the audience’s window into the emotional soul of the story.

Which is why my credo often is, Character is story. It’s the soul, without it, nothing.

Without character, you just have a dead corpse on your hand that occasional twitches and makes zombie-like shuffles for the exit.

But we’ll go to great lengths to see movies that live and breathe for us.

Rob: Jon Dillinger was killed behind that theater in a hale of FBI gunfire. And do you know who tipped them off? His fucking girlfriend. All he wanted to do was go to the movies.

Think about it.

Every show you watch, you watch because of the characters on them.

HOUSE. Great fucking character.

LOST. All those fuckers on that island, shit, some of them got off it already, they ain’t LOST anymore and still we’re watching them. Because of them. Because you’re emotionally attached to them.

We see BAD movies because of them. Folks lined up to see Spidey 3, even though they suspected it blew chunks, even though their friends warned them it blew serious chunks, they lined up and paid ten bucks anyway, because it’s Spider-Man. He disappointed them (and me) this time, and now there may not be a next time.

Sometimes, you don’t even care of the story blows, as long as the character you love is in it, doing that which moves you in that way unique to the character, as long as the soul was there, you’ll watch it even if the rest of it sucks.

Franchises are built around great characters. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes (House is an homage to Holmes). Super Fly (maybe that was just me). Batman.

Think again about all those movies you love, and why you love them, and why they move you.

[Liz storms in]
Rob: Hey, Liz.
Liz: [calm] Hi, Rob…
Liz: You fucking asshole!
[beat, Liz walks out the store, Barry’s in the corner, stares]
Liz: Hi, Barry.

So we’ve established a base line, which is the importance of character.

Because character is the soul of your story.

And you gotta have soul.

Next week, we’ll discuss EMOTIONAL CONTENT, how to put it into your script in a way most righteous, so come see us next Wednesday.

Until then, the Dojo is open for random free sparring for anyone interested, attend the comments below.

4 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - On Character, Ya Gotta Have Soul”

  1. Margarita Nikolayevna Says:

    Can’t agree with you more.

    Sometimes I watch movies over and over again because I can’t get enough of the dialogue, but the number 1 reason is the characters.
    I think that in films it’s also important who plays those roles. A character can have soul on paper but if it’s not the right actor, it will be lost on the big screen. Some remakes are definitely good example for that…

    “Without character, you just have a dead corpse on your hand that occasional twitches and makes zombie-like shuffles for the exit” – Great line!

    My pseudo name is my favorite literary character :)

  2. Jim Byard Says:

    While I agree with you that character and story are one and the same, I’m not sure you’ve said anything illuminating beyond that. I would take it as an axiom that characters, stories and plots are inseparable from one another. But that’s like shouting from the mountaintop that humans have opposable thumbs. Sure. It’s true. But how those things are related and how this might be useful to a writer who is creating a framework for their story is a bigger and more significant issue.

    As for the examples you use to illustrate poor characters and, as a result, stories that fall flat. Might I suggest that your entirely subjective view on whether those stories and characters were successful or not, does not serve your argument exactly. For instance- one could make the argument that both Hudson Hawk and Spiderman 3 had great character work in them. And that both were good movies. I know that Hawk in particular has long been the whipping boy of unimaginative critics, but upon closer inspection the characters in the movie were actually quite dimensional. I think that movie suffered from a problem of poor marketing. Expectations were set for a certain kind of movie that Hudson Hawk was not crafted to deliver. I’m not surprised that it was a disappointment to many.

    As for the character of House- I do think that he started out as an interesting character, but ultimately a limited one for serialized storytelling. Already his internal conflict is getting a little stale. They’re trying to give him new external conflicts in the story to keep it interesting, but most of us in the audience have already figured House out. It’s fairly easy to predict what he’ll say next.

    Which brings me to my last point. Great characters come from great conflicts. Particularly from great internal conflicts that can lead to fundamental human truths. That way, no matter what the character appears like, or what plotting they find themselves in the middle of, no matter how absurd their story, we as the audience can identify with them. We can see ourselves in the character. We can recognize ourselves in the story. That’s the soul I think you’re referring to. The conflict that tugs at the emotional center of the character and makes each and every scene with that character engaging and unpredictable.

    I’ve come across your blog before- you say a lot that’s interesting and valuable and then, on the other hand, you say a lot of stuff that sounds pretty much like a blowhard. Just an observation.

  3. Joshua James Says:

    Uh . . . thanks . . . I think.


    Hey, I said that this was only the opening shot on a series based on character work, and I also stated that the beginning is stuff most experienced writers are likely to know . . .

    But even today, you’d be surprised at how many folks confuse plot and story.

    I’m keeping my series down to bite-sized chunks, so to go down easier.

    Also I challenge you on the assertion that Spidey 3 had good character work . . . not enough of it to save it, that’s for certain.

    And Hudson Hawk, complete disaster, as evidenced in Richard E. Grant’s wonderful book . . .

    But whatever, dude, if they float your boat, more power to you.

    I don’t disagree with your last point too much, though I want to save the great character debate for when I get there . . . my primarily point to this small post is that off the three main things, character is more important to the audience.

    Check in next Wednesday, when I’ll either say something incredibly valuable or I’ll just shoot my mouth off . . . it’s a coin toss, heh-heh.

    And don’t forget, Mondays are Unheralded Cool MOvies You Should KNow About, be sure to check in.

  4. Joshua James Says:

    I should add, I’m not trying to slur Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe or Micheal Lehmann, director of HEATHERS (who according to reports of friends of mine, is an extremely nice guy and as documented in Richard Grant’s book, got steamrolled by Willis and Joel Silver on HUDSON HAWK) - okay, I do slam BATTLEFIELD EARTH, but who doesn’t? . . . My point is only that we go to movies to see work that makes us feel a certain way, and when the work fails to do that, we stop going to see them . . . we think it’s because it’s Jean Claude Van Damme or Winona Ryder, but in reality it’s our emotional response that dictates this.

    Actors I admire seem to be aware of this and select projects very carefully as a result . . . same for directors I admire.

    But the people above I mention strictly as a point . . . at one time, many folks were flavors of the month, and then they weren’t . . .

    Matt Damon said recently in an interview (I’m sorry I can’t remember which magazine) that before THE BOURNE IDENTITY came out a few years back, everyone expected the worst from it, because it’s opening had been delayed a year, and there were reshoots and cost overruns and rumor had it the production had problems and so the movie must be bad, it had to be bad, otherwise, why reshoot it?

    And since his two films previous had flopped (RIPLEY and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES) Damon’s status as a “Hollywood star” was down “there was maybe one offer to my agent, the week before it opened. After Bourne opened as good as it did, and the reviews were as good as it did, I had 12 film offers waiting for me that following Monday”.

    The film engaged and moved us, and everyone benefitted as a result. And Damon is really damn good in it, too.

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