Creating Characters
Characters: Creating Characters
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Defining characters by hypothesis

A psychological test is to ask someone what they would be in a circus. The point of this is that a circus is a microcosm of life. Superman would be the trapeze artist. James Bond possibly the trick shooter. Sherlock Holmes perhaps the illusionist. There is a place for us all in a circus, even if it is only to collect the tickets.

A similar test is to ask someone what sort of crime they might take to if they turned to this activity. Mickey Mouse would make the ideal con man as he is outward so honest. Winnie-the-Pooh might specialise in stealing honey.


Reinforcing a character's abilities

The strength of Sherlock Holmes as a character is not his thinking powers but the fact that he found an outlet that was ideal for using those powers. The balance of the his habits and mannerisms lead him to do illogical things as well. The situation is built up in that not only can he solve impossibly difficult crimes, but he can pit his wits against criminals who are a match for him, so both puzzle and challenge play their part.

Many stories are the outcome of someone who has the right abilities at the right time, and becomes a hero as a result. The adage that to achieve anything you must have 'The man, the method, and the moment' is true here. As we grow up we often find that what we would like to do and what we are good at are quite different. This may create a conflict of choice. A man who is good at making money in business but wants to be an artist, which he is not very good at. What does he do? If he has responsibilities he may have to give up the idea of being an artist. Or he may dabble in art as a pastime, or he may leave his responsibilities and become a poor artist. He may even marry a good artist and let her create the 'artistic environment' he likes. He may open up a gallery as a business and use his moneymaking skills in that sense. He may encourage his children to go into art. He may become an art collector. Whatever he does, it will in most cases be a compromise in some way. Even artists who want to do it, and are good at it, and make money at it, will find at some time they may well want to do something else, and have the same problem of finding a level of satisfaction that meets their needs.


Exploring a range of roles for the characters

Try to explore the possibilities of your characters in this way. Sherlock Holmes acting abilities were used to help him in disguising himself. What other skills might he have had that would have been useful? Let's suppose he was a skilled mathematician. He might have turned his detective skills to solving codes. Had he been a skilled linguist, he might have travelled much further in his detective work. Had he been an expert shot he might have had more fighting in his stories. The idea of using one skill to support another skill is called 'positive transference'. It is very useful to have these extra skills available when circumstance of storyline requires them. Everyone has these skills, picked up from past interests, but they need to be stated somewhere in the story. If we know a detective is a keen sailor we can assume that he is reasonably fit, able to tie knots, and find his way around with a compass or by the stars. That would be a useful starting point for the storylines. Try to have these 'background skills' stated directly, or implied when thinking of characters.

These are not much use in short animated films, but as a starting point in character development it does help to set storylines in motion, and keep them consistent with the character's abilities.


Swapping roles of characters

Tom and Jerry. Tom is a big bully who is not too bright, Jerry is the small smart mouse. Tom's objective is to rid the house of Jerry. Let's imagine that it is Jerry's job to protect the house from Tom, who is a burglar. Jerry would then be the both in the right, as the property protector, and the 'little man' we side with. A development of that side would give Jerry a personality closer to Bugs Bunny.

If Tom and Jerry were friends, we would have the common formula of the 'big funny guy and small smart one'. If Tom was the big good easygoing type, and Jerry the small rat-like trouble maker, it would offer another interpretation.

Further developments would be for Tom and Jerry to have twin brothers with opposing personalities. Or again, use the Jekyl and Hyde idea of them changing their personalities. Other ideas would be for them to exchange personalities while still retaining their own bodies, or to have a common enemy (the bulldog) and having to combine forces, yet still hate each other. The key to exploring the characters potential is substitute another personality and see how it changes the situation without disrupting the storyline theme. In a James Bond story he will fall in love with the enemy agent he is meant to kill. This, in effect, changes his character. It gets resolved by someone else killing the woman he loves, or she defects to his side.

Characters who oppose each other are essentially like sportsmen competing with well-matched rivals. Such stories are basically 'David and Goliath' themes, and come up in many variations. The objectives are different, and the key of any story is having a clear cut objective motivates the characters.

To make the story work at all, the characters have to be balanced in the sense that there is a fine line between the abilities of each to achieve their objectives. If one had a clear advantage then there would be no story. It is like a sport where the opposing sides are matched so well that the outcome is nor predictable.


Making characters believable

How believable are your characters? Mad men who want to conquer the world might be totally believable if they present their ideas in a way that people believe in them. Perfectly sane men trying to do something simple might find it difficult to get others to believe in them if their ideas are of little interest to others, so the key to success is having a vision or purpose that others identify with and are prepared to support.

A stupid person might be quite assertive, whereas a clever person might be shy. Imagine how these would put over their ideas, or how they integrate in their group. We develop our own personalities by discovering 'what works'. If we find we can get what we want by flattering people then we will develop 'flattery' as a means to achieving our ends. Others will use bullying, money, charm, etc. At some point we get known for being the sort of person who uses those ways.


Stopping characters from dominating a story

The most common fault in animation is to let the strongest personality element dominate the story. Typically someone will come up with a character and assume that the story writes itself. They then list a few ideas for stories. For example a designer might draw a cowboy. The stories then become cliché cowboy situations. The other end of the scale uses a strong plot idea like a haunted castle, and then draws up some cliché characters that fit the plot.

Now look at Donald Duck. He is the born loser, so whatever role he plays it will still have the same outcome of him finding trouble. This is what makes Donald a strong character. Contrast him with Bugs Bunny, who never gets flustered in any situation. Bugs is also a strong character. The situations they are given are those that emphasise the characteristics of the personality. Plots are conceived to exploit the characters strongest points.

Make sure your characters are clearly defined, and test them out by putting them in other situations. Also, once you have defined your character broadly, then reinforce the main traits. A silly character has a silly voice, silly clothes, silly habits, and silly friends. Although there can be male and female types, they have gender differences in many subtle ways that can help define them. A characters personality is largely determined by its needs and its ability (means and methods) to fulfil those needs.

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