There are five predominant means to express characterization:
- How a character physically appears
- What a character says
- What a character does
- How other characters react to them
- What a character thinks
Now, while nailing down all five of these methods can, and often will, present a character in perfect clarity I’d hardly call it engaging writing. We don’t want to know everything about a character, right? We want some discussion and perhaps even argument. Leaning on three or perhaps even two of the above characterization methods can force the audience into action, filling in the spaces the author leaves open through deduction and personal bias.
This is how subtle, meaningful characterization is accomplished. And it is HARD. Expressing antagonists this way might be easier to pull off because, after all, we didn’t need to know Boba Fett’s character to feel he was a compelling badass. But when we tackle a protagonist with this level of subtle under-writing, we get it into some complicated turf.
I’ve provided three examples to explore with you. I picked one from each major modern medium of narrative: writing, video gaming, and film.
Dr. Susan Calvin ~ I, Robot series from Isaac Asimov
While the film version of Dr. Susan Calvin was regulated to being eye candy for Will Smith, Dr. Calvin from Asimov’s series of brilliant novels is a sterling example of how less can be more. She is uncomfortable around people and often finds human interaction to be trite and covert. Small talk annoys her and social norms like makeup and flirting aggravate her.
Her career is bent on being a robot psychologist, and as robotics become more complicated and sovereign Dr. Calvin discovers that her skill set is vital. Got a robot lying? Call Dr. Calvin and she’ll figure out why. Several robots went missing? Bring her in to decipher the clues, profile their mindsets, and track them down. When dealing with the logical constraints of robotics, Dr. Calvin is at her most comfortable.
But where she shines is how Asimov hints at her depths. True, she has disdain toward flirtations and courtships… until a robot reveals to her that a handsome co-worker loves her. Subtly we see Dr. Calvin begin to wear makeup and spend more time with him. When the robot’s lie is revealed, her rage is astounding and unexpected. The audience suspects that Dr. Calvin’s dislike of flirtation isn’t because she is above it. Instead we suspect she wants love and affection ferociously but her social anxiety dominates her.
Another example is how so many other characters mistake her for being cold, particularly men. On multiple occasions her male peers dismiss her as half-robot herself but we come to suspect it isn’t because she is cold or calculating, but it is instead because these men have specific notions of what a woman should be and Dr. Calvin is so firm in her identity that they don’t spare the mental energy to connect with her on her terms.
I wonder if whomever was tasked with making a film of I, Robot completely missed the point of Dr. Susan Calvin. Perhaps they failed to actively read her and instead threw in Will Smith as a rogue cop that jumps off of motorcycles while shooting pistols in both hands.
Masterfully subtle that is not. Such a disservice to one of my favorite characters of all time.
Anonymous Marine ~ Doom
Believe it or not, the nameless and faceless marine from the recent reboot of the Doom series has more personality and expression than nearly any video game character I’ve played in years. While we often delight in powerhouse characterization in games like The Last of Us and Dragon Age, it is easy to overlook the subtle sharpness of this particular marine. Don’t mistake him for a tabula rasa like Gordon Freeman in Half Life. Freeman is an empty character by intention, but this marine is a bundle of emotions and beliefs.
To summarize, in the future the entire solar system is powered by energy literally leeched from Hell. Yeah. Hell is real in this setting, a facility on Mars leeches and bottles its energy, and demons are pulled out and experimented on by a company called UAC. While mapping and studying the Hellscape beyond our world (Hell literally looks like a death metal album cover) a crypt is found. Within is a human that the demons fear.
Seriously. This nameless marine is the boogeyman for demons. Mama demons tell their little larva scary bedtime stories about the Doom marine, and as you play the game it is clear to see why. While entirely in first person, we see the protagonist’s emotions and hesitations perfectly pantomimed through his hands. Never does he speak a single word, but through his actions and gestures we can feel how soaked in rage he is at the prospect of humanity using Hell as a plaything. He destroy’s equipment and shrugs off monitors when people attempt to convince him of what he knows is unethical. There is a dance to his motions, almost stage-like theatrics, that connect with a black box theater audience.
His disdain for the other surviving humans is palpable, and when he gets his hands on a demon in combat, the swift punishment that is delivered shocks the audience. Without hyperbole, horned monsters from the abyss of Hell have facial expressions of TERROR just before our little marine here pops them open like a candy-filled pinata of evil. Through this violence, as well as the choices the marine makes, we piece together the ethical code of this silent character.
So, isn’t this just like all of those 90’s action-movie heroes? Isn’t the Doom marine a one-dimensional, unspoken murder machine without any depth? I’d argue no, because while he says nothing and we have no idea of what he is thinking, the other traits inform us of a purposeful individual filled with belief and conviction. He is a zealot, furious with the muddied water of human ethics. His fury toward the foolishness of his fellow humans is barely suppressed and since he lacks the luxury of unleashing upon the people that caused this he instead stomps endless mud-holes into the unfortunate demons whom have invaded the surface of Mars.
I feel bad for these creatures. You can see in their glowing eyes how they regret their demonic life choices.
P.S. If you don’t do video games, watch the movie Dredd. Karl Urban does an amazing job portraying a bitter, heart-broken fanatical lawman who is similar in his belief and conviction.
Andy Dufresne ~ The Shawshank Redemption
When examining the film adaptation of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, we can easily observe Andy Dufresne’s characterization. We see how he carries himself, hear what he says and how he says it, and as the years roll by we become warmly familiar with the relationships he forms with his inmates. And while we do not know if he is guilty of murder or not until near the end of the film, it is clear that it doesn’t matter a whole lot to the audience because we have fallen in love with him for the person he is presented as.
But what goes on in Andy’s mind is a mystery. Even to his closest friends and late wife, Andy is a ‘”hard man to know” and this is one of the reasons for this film enduring over the years. The audience isn’t solving the mystery of Andy’s dead wife, but the mystery of Andy himself. This film so adeptly equips the audience with enough reliable evidence that his guilt or innocence isn’t a deciding factor in his character.
Red, Andy’s closest friend, provides narrative voice-over throughout the film. This acts as a proxy for the audience; Red often asks the same questions we do and in some ways explores the moral quandaries of Shawshank more openly. While that might seem like overt writing, Red is still as mystified by his friend as we are at times. This character acts as the head detective in the investigation the audience is a part of.
That investigation keeps the audience engaged throughout the film. We are anchored to it, often reviewing the material on Andy we’ve uncovered while Red keeps score of it and in turn, this reveals Red’s character. Red is a man to contemplate others extensively. Perhaps this started as a smart business practice, but through his periodical parole meetings his own character arc evolves. Red has applied his detective skills, honed by examining Andy, to himself for his own personal growth.
And when the credits are rolling, we in turn do the same.
Characterization is a balancing act that makes writers like me nervous. We are constantly juggling the five means to express character while we craft a story, and often we error on the side of obviousness. Blank faces from the audience and readership is death to narrators like us.
But when we find that sweet spot, that perfect balance of overt characterization through one venue while neglecting another, does our work ascend. Sometimes, if you’re the right combination of skilled and lucky, you can produce an engaging and mysterious character worth remembering.
Get Doom here.
Get The Shawshank Redemption here.