Friday, October 07, 2005


I'll admit it: Yes, I own a copy of Robert McKee's book Story. Like all screenwriting "rulebooks," it's got some interesting ideas, some useful tools for writing screenplays. It's also got a lot of bullshit, but there you have it.

One of the tools I like is the concept of character vs. characterization. (First, to clarify: character, here, is an aspect of what we would normally call a character. John McClane is a character, and he also has character and characterization.) Characterization is a character's outward appearance; how they speak, how they dress, how they act, what they like, and so forth. Character is how a character acts under pressure, when the chips are down, when the reaper comes calling, insert-tense-circumstances-cliché-here.

Two characters may have radically different characterizations, but similar characters. To cop McKee's example, imagine a rich, arrogant, sexist neurosurgeon and a poor, skittish, devoutly religious Latina housekeeper are driving down the highway in separate cars (a Mercedes and an old Honda). Ahead of them, a bus full of (let's say) nuns crashes into a concrete barrier and bursts into flame. The surgeon and housekeeper both screech to a halt, spring from their cars, and set about rescuing nuns from immolation, without a moment's thought for their own safety.

And of course two characters with similar characterizations can have vastly dissimilar characters. Imagine a group of nearly-identical punk rockers, leather jackets, metal studs, chains, spiky hair, nose rings, the works. They're heading down a street when, in an alley, they see a pair of women being mugged at knifepoint. Most of the punks just point and laugh and continue on, but one of them goes into a rage, sprints into the alley, and cracks the mugger over the head with (let's say) a crowbar.

All characters should have as good characterization as is possible given the amount of dialogue and screen time they have. All characters should have as strong a character as circumstances allow. Nurse #4, who tells the protagonist that visiting hours are over, probably doesn't need to have her character revealed at all, let alone strongly developed.