Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Creating Classic Characters

Ok, so William Shakespeare. I'm sure you've all heard of him; he's that dead bloke who wrote all those plays a bit ago. Know what I'm talking about? Yes? Good. Whether you like him or not, you have to accept that he's a huge influence and a key part in education. No kid is going to get through school without reading at least some of a Shakespeare play. So suck it up and deal.

I've studied more Shakespeare plays than I care to count. Being an English student, it kinda comes with the course. Some are amazing, some down right shite. Personally, I hate his comedies, because what was funny in the late sixteenth century isn't necessarily funny today. Not a difficult concept to understand. I'm here to talk about Shakespeare's tragedies and the characters in them.

There's that good old writing tip: write about characters.

For a while, I didn't really agree, but it's true. A story isn't about what happens, it's about what happens and how your (unique) characters deal with the situation. I've mentioned this before, but in short - your characters should drive the story forward. They shouldn't just be along for the ride.

Shakespeare knew this. He learnt it from classic writers such as Homer and Virgil. I don't think there's any other story that depends on the actions of a character quite like Homer's The Odyssey. You'll have to breeze out if you don't know much about it, but I studied it for a bit, so it's going to be an example.

In The Odyssey, the Trojan war (yes, that's the one with Achilles) has just come to an epic close and everyone is ready to head home. So we have Odysseus who wants to get back to Ithaca. It would be a nice and happy voyage, however, he fucks up.

Odysseus (for reasons I can't quite recall - it being 5 years since I read The Odyssey) mouths off at Poseidon. FYI - Poseidon is god of the sea, so not a chap to piss off when you intend to travel across the oceans. Anyway, Odysseus sets off and behold - Poseidon is royally pissed and kicks up one storm after another. Alas Odysseus and his crew become stranded on various islands filled with immense terrors, from a witch who turns men into pigs and one place filled entirely with women - now there's a terrifying thought.

So as you can see, it's Odysseus' actions that drive the plot. I don't need to go into too much detail, but Odysseus and his crew make one mistake after another, getting them into more and more trouble. They also get themselves out of it as well. While trapped in a cave with Polyphemus (a giant cyclops), who also happens to be Poseidon's son, they work out how to escape. They get the guy completely hammered and stab the bastard in the eye while he's zonked out.

Also, you can't talk about The Odyssey without mentioning Odysseus' clever wit. The cyclops asks Odysseus what his name is. Odysseus replies "Nobody". So when they blind the poor idiot, he stumbles out of the cave screaming "Nobody has blinded me!" Classic. And not too shabby for a guy writing in the eighth century BC.

Anyway, back to Mr. Shakespeare. He's all about characters. What is Romeo & Juliet about? A pair of star-crossed lovers. It's about them - the characters and how they deal with their situation.

Hamlet is about a bloke whose father is killed. So he tries to work out whodunit and exact revenge. Not about a King that's killed, but about how his son deals with it. By the way, in case you didn't notice as a kid, the best modern retelling of Hamlet is THE LION KING. Think about it.

In Macbeth, our leading guy is told he'll become King, so he takes action to fulfill his own destiny.

You get the idea.

To really who it's all about characters, try this with stories. How would characters from one story cope in another?

Stick Romeo in Macbeth or something like that.

For example, let's switch Hamlet with Othello. The low down - Hamlet's father is killed by his uncle. Hamlet suspects this, but is cautious and wants proof before he offs a member of his family. Othello is told that his wife is playing away, believes it and kills the bastards. So let's switch their roles.

Hamlet hears that his wife is shagging his best mate? What does he do? He investigates, realises that it's a lie and has Iago arrested. End of story, all is well.

Othello finds out that his father has been killed, most likely by his uncle. What does he do? He doesn't hang about. Being the rash, impulsive fella he is, he finds his sonofabitch uncle and takes an axe to his face, that's what. End of story, all is bloody.

That's just one example of how this technique works. Homer and Shakespeare realised that stories were all about characters, so it should come as no shock to you to realise the same.

One final (more recent) example:

What would John McClane (DIE HARD) do in Woody's situation (locked in a crazy kid's room in TOY STORY)? McClane would die hard his way out of the place, while saving all the kids. And he'd do it a hell of a lot faster than Woody. What would Woody do in McClane's sitch? Not a lot really, cos he's a toy, but probably call a bunch of mates to help him out.

Try the role reversal technique with some films or your own ideas and see how it works. If it changes things completely, you've got a shiny, character-driven story on your hands. Now you can make a patting motion on your back.

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