General Context—Stage Two
After you explore the first stage of researching the general context of your character—the what you already know stage—it’s time to expand your researching to the more comprehensive second stage.
Stage Two includes four basic areas that are crucial in the foundation of the general research of character creation: cultural conditions, story location, professional occupation, and historical period.
Culture encompasses such essentials as ethnic background, social conditions, religious upbringing, and educational experience.
Growing up in a Greek family, like Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos) in My Big Fat Greek Wedding(2002), where laughs are boisterous and hugs are never in short supply, is much different than in a more traditional Middle Eastern family where lips are sealed and you keep your hands to yourself. Characters’ actions will be greatly affected by how they were raised.
If your main character is faced with the death of a loved one, knowing their religion is key; do they turn to God or reject their faith? Education also affects intelligence and this in turn affects how the character acts or reacts to a given situation. Do they have a college degree? Did they drop out of High School?
Location is significant because there are specific rules understood within each particular world.
If your character lives in New York, as Isaac (Woody Allen) does in Allen’s film Manhattan (1979), it’s important to be specific. There’s a big difference between Times Square, Broadway, Manhattan’s Chinatown and Greenwich Village. Or if your character is from L.A., where exactly? Do they shop on Rodeo Dive in Beverly Hills to be seen by the paparazzi or kick it with fellow hipsters at coffee shops and micro-breweries in Silverlake and Echo Park?
When you know the details of the world, you’re on the right track to creating a more distinctive character.
If your character lives in London during 1960, she may be partying with the Rolling Stones and experimenting with psychedelic drugs, or if in 1942, he may be in boot camp, preparing to join the Allies for the War in the Pacific.
Time period affects everything from hygiene to speech to manners within society. Knowing the year, the month, even a specific historical day will help inform and specify your character’s behavior.
Choosing to place your 17 year-old protagonist in 1951, Virginia, proves immensely different than in 1971, after the desegregation of the school system, as is the case in Remember the Titans (2000), where black head coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is hired to lead the football team at newly desegregated T.C. Williams High School. If your character is the high school star quarterback, it’s important to know whether or not he’ll be facing racial issues on top of the already competitive world of high school sports.
Most every person has worked some kind of job in their life and has a specific worth ethic. Take, for example, Justin Long and Ryan Reynolds in Waiting (2005).
If the character has worked in the restaurant service industry for a decade, he will most likely have unique attitudes toward food, hospitality, and will probably treat her waiter or waitress with reverence when going out for a meal.
Trust fund babies, on the other hand, will have a much different attitude towards getting their hands dirty and working to the grind. Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore), the heir to an vast fortune, is a happy drunk with absolutely no ambition.
Even though the most important part of developing a character is choosing his or her objective, many times a goal can be a specific career or future dream job. In The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is a homeless salesman, who takes custody of his son while working as an unpaid intern for the chance to become a professional stock broker.
In sum, the knowledge you have of your character’s culture, location, time period, and occupation is the foundation on which your character navigates his or her story. Culture affects greatly how you create the voice of your character, his or her accent, humor, and interactions with others.
Your character’s education will inform how they speak: grammar, vocabulary, and vocal rhythms. Truthful dialogue cannot be created without deciding exactly how your character communicates. But before dialogue can be written, you must use all the research you have gathered to form an understanding of how your character thinks.
Your character’s past and present will influence their values, concerns, morals and emotions – all of which are crucial tools you must employ to take your character on a truthful, motivated journey towards his or her main objective.