Monday, May 13, 2013

Ogres are like Onions (and So Are Your Characters)

The moment is a famous one. Shrek and Donkey are trudging through a vegetable garden, chatting about why Shrek is the way he is and why he does (or doesn’t) behave in certain ways. Groping for an analogy to make things easier for Donkey to understand, Shrek informs his friend that, “Ogres are like Onions. They have layers.”

“They stink?” Donkey asks and, in doing so, reveals one of his own layers with this funny kneejerk question. Because, even though Donkey is far from being an Ogre, he has layers too. Most people do. And, therefore, so should your characters.
As writers, we can use Shrek’s apt example to help us determine the “why” behind our own character’s motivations and discover and show the deeper reasons that explain his or her actions and inactions.

Though onions (and people) have far more than just a few layers, here are three that your characters should possess.

-Outer Shell (What your character shows the world)

-Inner Shell (Your character’s true personality)

-Core (Who your character is at his or her deepest level)

When you begin writing a character and exploring his makeup, often the first thing you will glimpse is your character’s outer being or the person he presents to the world. Sometimes, this shell is bright and shiny. Maybe your hero is a supermodel, or maybe she’s a famous racecar driver. Or, if you’re tinkering with an underdog hero, the outer layer we see might include shabby clothing or thick glasses. But this outer layer is more than what your character is wearing or what he does for a living. Think about Han Solo from Star Wars. On the outside, Han is a rugged bad-ass. He’s not playing around, and he’ll shoot you under the table with a blaster if you start talking smack. Han is outwardly confident, he’s boastful and cocky. Han wants the world (and maybe even himself) to believe that he’s only out for number one.
The outer shell is the show your character puts on and his most outward mask. More often than not, it’s just that—a mask.

Which brings us to…

These are the parts hidden beneath the outer facade, the bits your character is reluctant to show the world. Sticking with the example of Han Solo, we can see through his actions that, even though he puts up a tough exterior, he’s a good man. Though Han Solo is impulsive and even dangerous, as we get to know him, we also see that he has good instincts and that he’s brave. Even though he gives the impression of being invested in himself more than anyone else, we’re then left to wonder why he’s so tight with the Wookie. And if he has a best friend, Han can’t be too awful, can he? Obviously Chewie (not to mention Princess Leia) sees something in the dude and, soon, so do we. Because Han sticks around when the going gets tough, and he stick his neck out for the rebellion when he doesn’t have to. Despite what he’d prefer us to think, he cares.
As opposed to the outer layer, the inner layer is all about what your character is really feeling and thinking and what your character knows about him or herself. Ask yourself what the subtext is in your character’s dialogue. What is he or she trying to hide from everyone else? More importantly, why?

The core is your character’s center. It’s what’s left when all the other layers have been peeled back. This is the nucleus of the person you’ve created and, without it, she would be nothing more than a floppy two-dimensional paper doll. It’s good to remember that the layers of any given character build on one another and that makes the core the foundation upon which all other layers are formed.
Going back to Star Wars, we could focus on Darth Vader and get one of the best examples in the galaxy of a good character core, one of the main reasons being that we all know ole’ Darth possesses more layers than he does robotic parts.
Over the course of the entire Star Wars saga, we discover that, in the end, despite the villainous deeds of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker—the man—possesses an enormous capacity for good. The layers might have been bad, but the core itself held something pure. At the finale, when Anakin’s title, position, prestige, dark persona and mask (i.e. Outer Shell) are all stripped away, we see that, deep down, Vader is highly vulnerable, and he’s a dad who regrets his mistakes and loves his son. Enough to die.
Huh. Who’d have thunk?
And through his sacrifice, through letting his center escape and shine through the built-up years of darkness and evil-doing, Vader is redeemed. Pretty powerful stuff if you think about it.  
So, keeping Darth’s mighty example in mind, when you’re exploring the very middle of your character, remember to think about this being the molten lava portion of the person you’re creating or, if you prefer, the squishy vulnerable innards. In other words, the core holds the answers to who your character really is. I mean, really really.
What happens when your character is stretched to her max, when it’s do or die? What or who would your character give his life for? What does she care about more than anything in the universe? What is her most secret delight?
Often, you won’t know the answer to some or even any of these questions until you have a first draft. Because it’ll take some digging on your part. And because your characters won’t be able to give up all of that info anyway until you PUT them in the tough spots and let the cameras roll.
Usually, the core is what we find out about a character in the last act of the story, when all the other layers have been stripped away. And the core almost always consists of things that even your character was not aware existed. It’s a golden place, raw and dangerous, explosive and volatile. So handle with care.
Exercise: Draw three circles, one inside the other. Label the center circle “Core,” the middle one  “Inner” and the outer “Outer.” Within each ring, using free-association, jot down traits that might belong to each layer. You might get some surprises!  When you’re done, pick only one word in “Core” that best describes your character and circle it.

Here’s a fun example below that I got in a diagram for Batman.


OUTER: Bruce Wayne, Millionaire playboy, dashing, good-looking, care-free, cocky, self-absorbed, oblivious, privileged, unconcerned, uninterested, lady’s man, inconsiderate, superficial, businessman, philanthropist, spoiled brat. (Puts on this show so that no one will suspect he is Batman. Bruce Wayne leads a double life not so that he can have a life, but to support and help conceal his hidden life, which is tied to his deeper purpose.)  
INNER: Friend, teacher, intellect, martial artist, scientist, disciplined, detective, ingenious, knows only tough love, hunted, both hated and loved. Misunderstood! Stubborn, enduring, loner, unable to escape his past, forlorn. ORHPHANED. Melancholy, serious, inventive, caring, afraid.  (Bruce Wayne has few friends and trusts only two or three people. The friends he does have he holds in high respect. You have to be as stubborn as he is in order to get close to him. Driven. Controlled insanity. Constantly runs the risk of crossing the thin line that separates him from the villains he locks up in the Arkham Asylum.
CORE: Righteous, fighter, unstoppable, self-sacrificing, ANGRY. Fueled by injustice. Alone in his pain. Lonely. Bereaved. HAUNTED.


Rebecca said...

Love this post. Lots of good stuff to think about (and work on)!

Lisa Tapp said...

Great post, Kelly. I can see how looking at/for all the layers in my characters will make this more alive on the page. Thanks.

Kim Van Sickler said...

I have been consciously working to layer my characters more. It really does make them more fun to write and read about too!

Kurt Hampe said...

Secretly this was just an excuse to talk like an ogre with a vaguely Scottish accent, right?

Good post and a fine reminder to always listen to the voices inside the characters' heads. And since the characters are in our heads, I guess, that means authors are like onions, too. If you leave us in the sun, we get all brown and sprout little white hairs.

Deborah McKnight said...

Your post was informative as well as entertaining. I thought the onion analogy was particularly effective. Thanks!

Kristin Lenz said...

This is a great exercise, and easy to remember too. Thanks for sharing, Kelly.