Last time, I posted about a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and mentioned that it had lessons applicable to anyone trying to tell a story. Today I would like to discuss one such lesson: how to tell if your character is boring.
At one point in the video, the reviewer poses a challenge:
Describe the following Star Wars character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Star Wars.
Ignoring the double negative in the last sentence, and without dwelling on the characters the reviewer refers to, consider the point of the challenge itself. It is a test to see which characters the audience remembers, understands, and (most importantly) cares about; and which ones they don’t.
With that thought in mind, I will reword his challenge slightly in order to make one of my own.
Describe a character, from your own work or another’s, without saying what the character looks like, how they dress, or what their profession or role in the story is. Do not mention details of the story’s plot, or the genre of the story itself. Describe this character to your friends as if they have never seen or read the story for themselves.
If a reader or viewer can reasonably described a character out of context, without going into specifics of the story itself or even the genre in which the story resides, then the character is more universally understandable. The audience can form an emotional connection with the character; will come to like or dislike them, to care about what happens to them. If the story is told well, the character will be remembered and talked about with others who also experienced the story.
If a reader/viewer cannot describe a character, then there will be less of an emotional connection. They may not care what happens to the character. If the character is central to the plot, then the audience may become bored with the whole story. If they do talk with others about the character or the story, they will have little to say, except perhaps to mention how forgettable both were.
For myself, I am reconsidering my central characters and seeing how well they withstand my challenge. If I cannot write down a satisfactory description that meets my stated requirements, then I will know I have a problem, that the character needs to be reconsidered and possibly reworked.
I plan to add a section to my new website where I will include these character descriptions. I hope it will serve both to remind me of my intentions for these characters, and to help me write them honestly.
Such character descriptions are not sufficient for making interesting characters. The descriptions themselves are a form of “telling”, and (as mentioned here and elsewhere many times) a writer should always strive to “show, not tell”. Nonetheless, if a writer cannot create a “telling” description of a character filled with interesting facts, odds are they will “show” their audience someone boring and forgettable.