Only a small part of an iceberg actually rises above water; the rest is an unseen mountain below.
And when it comes to creating characters, the iceberg metaphor is no different. The tip of the “Character Iceberg” is what the audience sees and hears, but the abyss beneath is what the writer knows. And understanding this mass of ice under the surface is exactly what makes for a complex and memorable character; dialogue and action should only hint to the subtext of the larger personality core within.
In the Academy Award winning film As Good As It Gets (1997), Jack Nicholson stars as Melvin Udall, a misanthropic, homophobic, racist, obsessive-compulsive best-selling novelist. He avoids stepping on sidewalk cracks, eats breakfast at the same table in the same restaurant every day, using disposable plastic utensils that he brings with him. Certainly, we understand avoiding sidewalk cracks and following the same breakfast routine as signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but why the plastic utensils? It’s the same reason that explains why he uses a new bar of soap every time he washes his hands. Melvin’s OCD is exasperated in large part to his pathological mysophobia, which is the fear of contamination and germs. Knowing this as part of Melvin’s larger iceberg helped writer Mark Andrus to show his iceberg tip through plastic utensils and bars of soap.
Creating a character begins with asking questions. Imagine a guy who plans to rob a bank. There are obvious questions to develop the story.
Why does he want to rob the bank?
Who will help him?
How will he plan the robbery?
What will he do with the money?
In Dog Day Afternoon (1979), first-time crook Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), his friend Salvatore "Sal" Naturale (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) attempt to rob the First Brooklyn Saving Bank. The robbery immediately goes awry, mainly because they're inept thieves; however, the question still remains: why do they attempt the robbery in the first place?
If the answer is just for money, it's not good enough. What will the money be used for? That's really the core question that will lead us to understanding a more complete back story. It isn't until after Sonny holds the people in the bank hostage, and the heist receives news coverage that eventually Sonny's wife arrives, a pre-operative transexual, revealing to the crowd and officials that Sonny attempted the robbery to pay for her sex reassignment surgery. Sonny loved his wife so much that he risked his life and their future to help her become a man. Now that's interesting.
The more interesting your questions, the easier it is to flesh out a deep seeded, complicated back story.
What was his upbringing like?
Has he stolen before?
What is his past with the law?
Does he respect authority?
The answers to further inquiries will help to produce a character with consistent actions that are motivated, and therefore, their actions are not only plausible, but probable.
The audience may see the effect, but not always the cause. Often, however, the cause is there, just revealed discreetly, through a small action or reaction.
In Almost Famous, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) rushes into the hotel room where Stillwater is partying. She recites a flight attendant’s introduction verbatim, adding a few French words here and there.
This tells us a lot. She has probably flown many times in her life and possibly to France. Only the writer really knows her exact airline history, but what we can take from it is that she travels frequently… perhaps to get away from home, but what is it she’s running away from? Could it be herself?
Know Your Character
Ultimately, you must know your characters—down to their iceberg cores: back story, psychology, and personality—because fleshed out characters won’t let you force them into implausible situations or unbelievable dialogue.
If you answer a myriad of questions, from something as basic as “what’s his hair color” to as specific as “what’s her handwriting like,” there’s a higher likelihood that a more complex, unique character will form.
Listen to the inner voices of your characters, and your writing will ring true.
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.