It’s easy to fall back on tired archetypes — the lover, the warrior, the orphan, etc. — and while I by no means think it is wrong to do so (especially if one is truly stuck or needs inspiration) I don’t think one should rely upon it.
I’m often frustrated with Hollywood for their overuse and reliance of these cookie cutter characters, I’ll still watch the movies and the tv shows, but when it’s over I feel unsatisfied. I don’t feel as if I had an authentic human experience. I don’t feel drawn in by the nuances that shape real humans. Real humans are unpredictable, they’re surprising, they’re illogical yet logical at the same time. They’re beautiful. So, lets take a moment and think about character.
A theatre theorist by the name of Lajos Egri wrote a book in the 1940’s that I think is very useful in our contemplation — The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. To be frank, I believe this to be a highly underrated book by modern standards — despite it’s widespread popularity in Playwriting circles when it was initially published, somehow it didn’t quite stand the test of time — a mystery I’m still trying to figure out.
For this contemplation I’m primarily interested in Chapter 1 — subsection 3: “The Dialectical Approach”. (Perhaps at another time I will contemplate other parts of his book.) Now, in order to really think about characters in the way I intend to, one must have a working knowledge in idea of a dialectic.
From the Greeks to Marx, the Dialectic has been used on everything from Debate to History. In this case we will be using it in regards to character. As Egri describes in the chapter a dialectic can be described as such: A thesis is presented, a contradiction is found and there is a counter (antithesis) that is presented in response, then there is a resolution of the contradiction and we have synthesis. This is the dialectical method.
Some philosophers describe the way in which a dialectic manifests its self as helical — always turning and never returning to the original position. It is not circular which would be the negation of the negation.
Egri asserts that these three steps (those that make up the dialectic) govern all movement. I would say I likely agree with him. Human action is rife with contradiction — the carnivorous veterinarian is one example. How does a veterinarian justify healing a puppy in the morning, and by evening enjoys a flatiron grilled pizza with goat milk and prosciutto? Easy, by a justification and resolution of contradictions. They say that that puppies are mans friend whereas the pig and the goat are food (never mind that they are all variations of mammals). This is the dialectic at play, and it is what drives human action.
Egri in his chapter beautifully maps this out by drawing a character portraiture, and for the sake of space I’m not going to further contemplate his painting — but I would encourage you to read it, it is well worth the time. Instead, I’d like to contemplate our own usage of this notion of the dialectic.
How do we use this tool?
I often find myself thinking in very linear ways about character, despite my preaching here I too am plagued by wanting to do the logical thing. But logic is boring. Humans are illogical. Humans are interesting. So, how do we do it? Well, perhaps we can start to make headway by allowing our characters to just be. To take risks. When we map out our characters occasionally think of things in an opposite way, or perhaps sideways, backwards, and reverse. Mentally roll the dice on a characters action, and allow them to justify it to you. Don’t justify it to them. This is a place where “I don’t know” is ok. This is how we make interesting characters.