This is an excerpt from Write Your Way Into Animation and Games by Christy Marx. Write Your Way Into Animation and Games can be found on Amazon, BN.com, and wherever fine books are sold.
Contributor: Jean Ann Wright
How to Begin
Put in as much time as it takes to develop characters that are really original and interesting! You’ll want each of them to be as different from the others as possible. Those differences allow your characters to conflict and to relate to each other in funny ways. You’ll probably want to start by writing a biography or fact sheet for each of your main characters. If you’re an artist, you may prefer to start by drawing the characters. Often writers choose to script scenes between characters to see how they’ll react. And actors sometimes prefer to improvise scenes out loud to develop their characters. Whatever works best for you is fine. Think of your characters as real actors. Get to know them so you know what they’ll do. Lucky for you, your actors won’t indulge in gourmet lunches and then demand a trainer to get in shape for the big battle scene or insist on a stunt double to fight the fifty-foot, flying monster with two robotic heads!
Types of People
People have been characterized by types and traits for eons. In the Middle Ages there was black bile (melancholic, sentimental, thoughtful), blood (sanguine, amorous, joyful), yellow bile (easily angered, obstinate), and phlegmatic (calm and cool). Another method divides the body into centers: head (soul, link to God), pituitary (integrated mental, emotional, and physical), throat (conscious creativity, intellect), heart (greater love, brotherhood of man, self-sacrifice), solar plexus (aspiration, group power, personal power), sacral (sex, money, fear), and root center (survival). Carl Jung classified types as the introvert or the extrovert, and then further into those who experience life mainly through sensing, thinking, feeling, or intuition. People have been characterized as being dependent, independent, or interdependent. Whether or not you believe in these kinds of classifications, any of these methods might help you to develop your characters. Of course, there’s also astrology.
Consider these other norms. Real people are often in conflict with their character opposite. However, some people seek out others that complement their strongest traits. Usually, people are a combination of two or more types.
Classic Comedy Character Types
From its beginnings, comedy has often been based on a character type. It’s a stereotype in that it’s an exaggerated model we recognize and understand. This kind of character is valuable in comedy shorts like cartoons because we already know that character and what to expect. It saves time. We don’t have to set up a new character for the audience, but we can go immediately into the story and the gags. We laugh when the character does the funny thing that we have come to expect, and we laugh when he does something off-the-wall that we don’t expect. Inflexible types are great for comedy. These character types have a comic defect. You can set up a character type and bounce the world off him, using conflict and contrast. Think of Homer Simpson, Donald Duck, and the Grinch.
Comedy stemming from character allows for sustained humor, and it’s remembered long after the gags and the situations. A good gag builds characterization, and characterization builds gags.
Classic Roman comedy types are still used in cartoons:
- The Blockhead —We’re smarter than he. He’s defeated before he even begins.
- Fred Flintstone (The Flintstones)
- The Naif — The kid who’s always in trouble.
- Bart Simpson (The Simpsons)
Other typical comedy types include the following:
- The Fish Out of Water—The misfit. (Try developing a whole series around this type!)
- Shrek (Shrek)
- The Naïve—Forever innocent.
- Winnie the Pooh (Winnie the Pooh)
- The Conniver—Not innocent, but really guilty.
- Wile E. Coyote (Road Runner)
- The Zany—Wild and crazy.
- Aladdin (Disney’s Aladdin)
- The Poor Soul—The underdog. This character works best today when he’s a child or an animal. Be careful about adult characters that appear to be victims. If the adult is a victim, then he must constantly be struggling to get out of that situation for us to identify with him. Also, this kind of character must retain his cool and remain likeable no matter what injustices are done to him. Charlie Chaplin fought for his dignity.
- Tweety Pie (Tweety Pie)
- The Coward—Always the chicken.
- Scooby-Doo (Scooby-Doo)
Starting a Profile
Not every question that follows will be applicable or necessary for each character you develop. The most important information is what will help you delve into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of your characters. Feelings and emotions are key to good writing! You might even want to write down your own character profile and delve more deeply into the things that make you tick. Tapping into your own emotions, often buried deep inside you, get inside their skins. Some people feel that it’s better to write a character profile in the first person, as if it were an autobiography, so you really get inside the soul of each character. Your characters should be allowed some room to grow as you write more about them. The more you know about your characters, the better.
- Name (name may give us a clue: Precious, Cowboy, U.R. Steel, or Ted D.Bear)
- Appearance (height; weight; hair color; eye color; physique; size; posture/poise/carriage; outstanding physical characteristics, such as dimples; dress—taste, neatness)
- Does he move like a dancer or someone who’s sleepwalking?
- How does he walk?
- Does he use expansive gestures when he talks?
- Voice (diction, vocabulary, power, pitch, unusual attributes)
- What does the character say, and how?
- Give your character a dialogue tag (Fred Flintstone’s “Yabba dabbadoo!”).
- Make your character’s voice distinctively his or hers.
- I.Q., abilities, talents, qualities (imagination, judgment).
- Personality/attitudes/temperament. Attitudes are key to comedy and situation drama.
- Is your character ambitious, loyal, sensitive? Inferior, optimistic? Shy?Sloppy? Eager?
- Character flaws, bad habits, weaknesses
- What is your character’s biggest secret? What will happen if someone finds out?
- What is your character’s biggest fear? Why? What caused this?
- What was your character’s biggest disappointment?
- What was his most embarrassing moment?
- What was the worst thing that ever happened to him?
- How does this affect your character today?
- What makes your character angry? Frustrated? Ashamed?
- Does he have self-esteem?
- Is your character a loner? Does he belong to lots of groups? Which ones?
- How does he connect with the other characters during your story?
- What makes your character laugh?
- How does he relax?
- Motivations, goals, ambitions. What does your character want?
- What is your character’s spine? What’s his unchanging driving force throughout life?
- Does your character put his own self-interest first, or that of the group and its survival?
- What are the shifting allegiances in your character’s life?
- Does he feel pressured by other people or circumstances?
- What are your character’s hard choices? Crises? Urgent decisions?
- How does he react differently from the norm?
- Values. What’s important to your character?
- How does he feel about the past? What in past situations have specifically affected the important choices he is making in this story?
- What are your character’s current circumstances (rich/poor, good luck/bad luck)?
- What effect do these things have?
- What current threats exist in your character’s life?
- What opportunities does he have?
- How does your character feel about the future?
- How did your character get involved in this situation?
- What about his background or personality made him get involved?
- What kinds of changes has your character been going through?
- Birth of a child? New brother or sister?
- Marriage? New stepmother or stepfather?
- Death in the family?
- A major move?
- A major school or job change?
- What external or internal stresses is your character facing
- Ethnic background (when needed, research for authenticity) and any cultural baggage?
- Social/economic/political/cultural background and current status (research)
- Occupation—research well if he has one. Values derived from the work(an accountant vs. an actress)
- Pace, stress factors, other characteristics of the job.
- Siblings? Parents? Husband or wife? Extended, adopted, or alternative family?
- How do these relationships now or in the past affect your character?
- How did he grow up? With love? Closeness? Neglect? Abuse?
- How did your character’s family affect his self-image?
- Hobbies, amusements
- What does your character read, watch on TV/in the movies/on the Internet
- What sports, exercise, or hobbies does your character engage in?
- What does he do on Saturdays? Sundays? Tuesday evenings?
- What makes him funny?
- Give your character one dominant trait, with a couple of other less important traits.
- Era—if this is historical, research well.
- Setting or place
- What kind of people would be in this setting?
- How would your character react to this setting? Would he be happy here?
- Why or why not?
- Where was your character before this? Why?
- Is he likely to leave soon? Why or why not?
- Does this setting or where he was before give your character a different outlook or attitude? A different rhythm?
- What sounds, smells, and tastes are in your character’s surroundings?
You don’t need to answer every single one of these questions, but do take the time to get to know your character. Use the Character Profile to help you explore personality.
Christy Marx is a writer, story editor, series developer, game designer, and interactive writer. Her many credits include: Babylon 5 and the Twilight Zone; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; He-Man; X-Men Evolution; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Lord of the Rings; Elfquest; and more.