Defining a Character

Characters are predominantly defined by the decisions they make. The story-telling community tends to agree with this statement. It would follow that more interesting decisions make for more interesting characters. The major implication here is that an interesting character does not exist in a vacuum- the ability to create complex characters rests with the ability to create complex dilemmas.

Cake or Death

The biggest problem with many films is that the dilemmas are decidedly one sided and easy to approach. It is a waste of screen time to show a character making an easy decision. Say we put ten characters into a room, all with various character traits, religious backgrounds, political inclinations and personal histories and gave them a dilemma.  The most revealing and interesting dilemma would be one in which all ten characters would choose differently- so the viewer would learn the various differences. The least revealing dilemma would be one in which all ten would choose the identical path; like “Live or Die”. Comedian Eddie Izzard has a great take on the concept:

We can think of it like questions one would ask a prospective date. If we are trying to learn about them, why ask “Cake or Death?” (other than to be coy). As filmmakers, we only have the length of the movie to connect our audience to our characters, don’t waste time with easy dilemmas. So how does one go about making complex dilemmas? Here is a method:

Good vs. Good

The fastest way to create a flaccid dilemma is by making one choice “good” and another choice “evil.” It’s “Cake or Death” all over again. Instead, try putting values in conflict. For instance, it is hard to argue HONESTY is undesirable (It’s good!). Similarly, who wouldn’t want KINDNESS (Also good, but different). Once we place these values in conflict, we can start to think of complex dilemmas. Some small examples:


Your best friend, a passionate musician, is gathering signatures for a petition to allow students to practice instruments in your college dorm. You do not enjoy the music your friend plays. She asks you to sign the petition…

The man who has replaced you at your dream job is at the center of media and press coverage for his success. You know the man (though qualified) lied on a part of his resume- you also know he has a family to support. A reporter asks about his resume, do you tell the truth?

Your daughter enters a talent competition and was decidedly outperformed. In a moment of sheer awe, you cast your vote for a child who does spectacular human beatboxing. Your daughter returns from the competition downtrodden with loss. She looks up and asks you if you voted for her…

Thoughtful people will disagree on the answers to these dilemmas. Your own answer will tell you if you value kindness or honesty more. Such decisions are more revealing of character: In what contexts will the character be independent or cooperative? curious or comfortable? free or secure? practical or imaginative? social or diligent? Value conflicts come in an unending palette.

You can probably improve upon my examples, feel free to do so.

Happy reading,



~ by animationslider on March 16, 2017.

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