Thursday, September 27, 2012

What They Don't Do

When defining a character, it is more important to ask what the character won’t do than to ask what a character does. We often question what motivates a character to take a particular action. The problem with that is that we end up thinking of some action and then struggle with finding something that would persuade the character to take that action. What, for example, would cause a woman to kill her children? Or what would cause a man to leave a wife that loves him? It isn’t easy to come up with an answer.

So how does turning the question around help? For one thing, it causes us to develop the motive before the action. Suppose a woman has spent all day listening to her children yelling at each other. What will she not do? Most women won’t kill their children in that situation. But they might be short with their husbands.

Now, consider who we are as people. We might talk about the things we do, but the things we don’t do are far more interesting. What if a person were born without the natural ability to have inhibitions. If that person say a five dollar bill on the table, he would pick it up. If he wanted more cake, he would eat it. If he saw a woman who attracted his attention, he would rape her. That’s the nature we all start with. Children have to be taught not to just take whatever they want.

It becomes interesting when we consider why a character doesn’t give in to his natural desires. Why does the character practice abstinence? Why does the character marry one woman and remain loyal to her?

We look at characters in a situation and we have expectations about how they will react. If they do what we expect, it isn’t very interesting. If they do the unexpected, then we are interested and want to know more.