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Adding Depth to Depicting and Writing Characters

Once, in a drawing class in university, a fellow student asked for my help on an in-class project of drawing an apple set in front of us. When I looked at her paper I instantly saw the issue, because she was trying to draw her idea of what an apple looks like, instead of drawing what she was seeing in front of her. So I told her not to worry about drawing an apple, but to draw the shadows and light, and out of that the apple would emerge. Ever since then, I had seen that moment as a metaphor with various other things, especially when it comes to acting and writing. What do I mean? Well, let me explain.

Novice acting students will frequently make the mistake of acting out what they think an emotion is supposed to look like. But emotions are complicated. We don't always break down crying when we're sad or start yelling when we're angry. Sometimes we smile when we're sad, and sometimes we get very quiet and calm when we're angry. Instead of trying to “draw their idea of an apple,” they should “focus on capturing the light and shadow” and the emotion will emerge. What is the character thinking in that moment? Why is it they're saying that line or doing that action? What are they going to do or say next, and why? Things like the character's history, personality, and motivation all color how they react to things, and that's what delivers the emotion. Different people have different reactions to the same situations, and it's all due to those factors. Who a character is as a person, what they've lived through and how they view the world, are what determine their reactions.

And that exact same understanding is what helps with writing characters. Have you ever read something and the characters come across as very flat, as if they're just cardboard cutouts there to voice plot-progressing lines? Or maybe they're cringingly bad stereotypes? Again, all are results of people trying to draw their idea of an apple, so to speak. But instead of focusing on this idea of what a character who's X, Y, or Z is supposed to be like, focus instead on history, experiences, personality, motivation. This happens most frequently with characters that aren't like the author (like, they are a different gender, race, ethnicity, etc). But even with characters who are a lot like the author themself, if the actual things which make up a person are neglected and under-developed, it just results in a flat, wonky, unrealistic character.

This is incredibly prevalent in things featuring characters who are children. Overall, they're an admittedly difficult character type to pin down when writing. Certainly there are some basic things to consider when writing kids. As we mentioned in a previous post, avoid formal and overly complex speech patterns for children, especially when they're talking with other kids. But kids can be kind of weird? This past winter, my neighbor's son called out to me while I was walking to my car, saying, “I didn't mean to break the laws of physics, it just happened!” He's about seven, and he was talking about a snowball growing larger the more he rolled it. Which, when informed that's what it's supposed to do, responded, “No one ever told me that!” Honestly, I think it's due to this inherent weirdness that kids are so difficult to accurately depict. No matter how hard you try, it can still feel like you're just drawing your idea of an apple, because absolutely nothing compares to the real thing and the truly random stuff they say. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, though, so long as you keep in mind that kids are also people and have their own experiences and personalities.

So whether you're an actor attempting to hone your skill, or you need to write a script with believable characters, don't get stuck on your idea of how a type of character or an emotion “should” be. That's the wrong thing to focus on, and will only give you bland, crude depictions. Set aside preconceived ideas and focus on the actual components, because that's how you'll achieve the desired results. And if you have to write a child character, best of luck to you, because kids are weird.

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