Have you ever watched the movie, The Game? Michael Douglas plays a person with every material advantage who is, nevertheless, precariously close to killing himself. Here’s the setup:
“Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, but his success has come at a cost. He is estranged from both his ex-wife and his only sibling, his younger brother, Conrad (Penn). He remains haunted from having seen his father commit suicide on the latter's 48th birthday. For Nicholas' own 48th birthday, Conrad presents Nicholas with an unusual gift—a voucher for a "game" offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad promises that it will change his brother's life.” (The Game, Wikipedia)
If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, hang on just a moment longer.
In “Story” Robert McKee writes that in the Middle Ages scholars had the notion of a Mind Worm. He writes:
“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely—dreams, fears, strength, weakness. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could then create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one-of-a-kind adventure, a quest that would force him to use himself to the limit, to live to his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”
Consumer Recreation Services, from The Game is basically the modern equivalent of the Mind Worm! (BTW, if you’ve never seen the movie, Roger Ebert’s review of “The Game” was right on target and, as his reviews always were, beautifully written.)
I’ve talked about The Game and Mind Worms to lead up to what McKee says is the essence of dramatic storytelling: fully developed characters placed in a world designed to test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, to force them not only to face themselves as they are but to push past what they thought were their limits and be reborn, a new self. Or fail and die.
That’s dramatic storytelling in a nutshell. The question is: how does one do that? Today I’d like to talk about part of the answer to that question by discussing the difference between what McKee calls characterization and True Character. Let’s dive in.
The events a character experiences must fit the character.
Characters aren’t human. They aren’t persons. They’re better! Why? Because they are intentionally designed to be clear and knowable. It is possible for me to completely understand a character. I’ve never been able to say that of a flesh-and-blood person. Just when I think I have them pegged they will do something that completely bewilders me.
Character Design: Characterization vs True Character
You’ve likely heard this part before, but let's review it since we’ll be building on it in what follows:
A fictional human’s characterization will include some or all of the following:
- physical appearance
- style of speech
- gender and sexuality
- where he/she lives
- how he/she lives
A character’s characterization is the sum total of the observable qualities. They are what makes that character unique.
2. True Character
As we’ve seen, characterization is about the outer, the observable. True Character is about what is inside.
- Is the character loyal or disloyal?
- Are they honest or dishonest?
- Loving or cruel?
- Courageous or cowardly?
- Generous or selfish?
- Willful or weak?
True Character is expressed through choice necessitated by dilemma
“How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.”
The key to True Character is desire
What does the character want? McKee writes:
“A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire—not only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious as well.”
Which suggests a number of questions:
- What does the character want/desire?
- When do they want it? Now? Soon? Later?
- What is their overall desire, their chief desire?
- Does the character know he/she wants this?
What we mean by a “three-dimensional” character
But having a single, unitary, desire isn’t enough. McKee points out that truly great characters have one particular trait in common: they have contradictory desires.
Kinds of contradiction
This fundamental contradiction can take a couple of forms.
1. Contradiction deep within the character.
The character has contradictory desires. For example, Macbeth was torn between ambition and guilt.
2. Contradiction between characterization and True Character.
Another common kind of contradiction is that between the characterization—the character’s observable qualities, those that make her unique—and her True Character.
For example, a effusively complementary, gorgeous beauty queen might be seething with bitterness and anger.
That’s it! In my next post I’m going to pick up on Robert McKee’s contention that the entire story world is formed—or should be formed—as a kind of fiery forge or crucible to push the character to, and then past, his limits. That’s the heart of drama.Photo Credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.