Creating Complex Characters, Part IV

If you read much about how to create good characters in fiction, you will certainly come across Aristotle’s Poetics. In this work, Aristotle created the first real piece of Western Literary Criticism, defining the major genres and literary techniques of his time (4th century B.C.E.), using key literary works of the period for examples.

Today I’m going to borrow from Michael Tierno’s treatment of characters in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters. I’ll begin with a rather lengthy quote from Tierno’s book. He begins with Aristotle’s four basic elements of any good character:

First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human — give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay.” Aristotle adds that if they are inconsistent, make them consistently inconsistent.

Tierno goes on to say:

“Additionally, he [Aristotle] gives us five principles of life that we can use to create character in our stories:

  1. Nutritive Life
  2. Desiring Life
  3. Sensitive Life
  4. Locomotion
  5. Capacity for Rational Thought

“[which] can be used to create convincing three-dimensional characters.”

Some of these principles are more obvious than others. By Nutritive Life, Aristotle simply means your character’s eating habits. We’ve all heard the saying “We are what we eat.” Tierno recommends that screenwriters ask themselves questions such as, “How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think about food a lot? What do your characters’ refrigerators look like?”

For Aristotle, Desiring Life simply means what your character wants that drives his/her actions. As I have emphasized other places in From the Forge, and Tierno asserts here, “At the heart of all action is the desire of the hero.”

The Sensitive Life, Aristotle’s third principle, is a bit misleading to modern ears. Aristotle simply means here the life of the senses. Presenting the fictional world through the five senses of the character makes both the fictional world and the character more real. Show, don’t tell?

Aristotle’s fourth principle, Locomotion, is self-explanatory. The character’s movements must be presented clearly and accurately. I’ve already emphasized in this series of posts that actions are an important way to develop characters. Another common saying, “We are what we do.”

Capacity for Rational Thought is Aristotle’s final principle. Again, in an earlier post I discussed the use of a character’s thoughts in creating complex characters, and for Aristotle the capacity to think rationally was the greatest of human characteristics.

In closing, I’d like to reiterate a point I made in my most recent post, that the creation of complex characters can be well served by thinking about how these principles, or techniques, might conflict with one another—for example desire in conflict with action, or rational thought in conflict with the senses.