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Monday, August 15, 2016

Pairing Behaviors with Odd Demeanors for Originality

When it comes to characters, writers, especially new writers, tend to match their characters' demeanors up perfectly with their behaviors. The bully is a straight-up jerk. A class clown is always laughing and joking. Someone who is brave tends to be a bit loud-mouthed.

But the reality is, people aren't really that clear cut and standard. Honestly, it's been since elementary school since I met a bully who was straight-up jerk. But we tend to want to match up demeanors and behaviors stereotypically.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out to eat with a group of people. One girl in particular has a very chillaxed demeanor. She doesn't talk a lot or draw a lot of attention to herself. She's not really shy, but only has a few sentences to say at a time, and they are usually said with a somewhat chill tone. She might be the person who is laid back in her seat, sitting in the corner of the room alone. But if you start talking to her, you'll realize she actually has very strong, specific opinions, if you pay attention to the content of her words instead of her demeanor when she says them. When we were out, I witnessed a discussion where no one could say they thought she was wrong or even voice that they disagreed with her, without being told off--no raised voices or sternness, still chill, but everyone engaged in the conversation got told off by her.

Similarly, I know another person who has a very cheerful demeanor--lots of smiles, laughs, and kind, welcoming expressions. But after spending some time with him, I realized he spent most of his conversations saying what he doesn't like about friends, family, or acquaintances. I almost didn't even realize what was happening because his demeanor was so cheerful. All I knew was that for some reason when I was done talking with him, I didn't actually feel happy and instead felt insecure. It took a while before I put together that it was the content of what he was saying--and maybe even more so, how at odds it was with his demeanor.

This can work with behaviors too, as opposed to just conversation content. Often the bravest people aren't the loud-mouths and showoffs, they're the quiet ones sitting in the back. Funny characters don't need to have a laughing or joyful demeanor. They can say funny things in chill ways.

Alternatively, have you ever been around someone you thought was funny, but eventually realized that they were just rude with a funny demeanor? (It seems a lot of cheap jokes are actually insults.)

Putting behaviors at odds with demeanors can be effective in fiction too. Jack Sparrow is probably one of the most recognizable characters of turn of the millennium. He's also a great example of this. It might not seem like it at first, because he's been around for over a decade now and almost everyone is familiar with his character (he's been in four movies, a fifth on the way), but try to think back to the very first movie when you first saw him. Jack Sparrow had very typical pirate behaviors, but the demeanor Johnny Depp brought to the character was anything but stereotypical. In fact, most people don't know that Johnny Depp was actually almost fired on set because he was giving Jack Sparrow such an unconventional demeanor. The filmmakers didn't get it. "Why does he walk weird?" "Is he supposed to be gay?" And they hated the way he slurred his words. In fact, Johnny Depp got a phone call from Disney where they frankly asked, "What the f--- are you doing?"

"I fully expected to be fired," Johnny Depp said. The filmmakers even considered putting subtitles (how seriously or how jokingly, I don't know) up when Jack Sparrow was talking because they didn't understand him.

Johnny Depp says he pulled inspiration from The Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards, which I think a lot of people know, but what a lot of people don't know, is he paired that demeanor with Pepe le Pew of all people (characters).



Not only is that an odd combination in and of itself (a rocker, a cartoon character?) but putting that combo on a pirate is pretty bizarre too.

Of course, we all know what happened. Pirates of the Caribbean became a hit--and all anyone could talk about was Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow this and Jack Sparrow that. Everyone wanted to imitate him after the movie and say his quotes. In fact, my high school did Les Mis for a play one year and the actor (who was already very talented) who played the "Master of the House" called upon Jack Sparrow's demeanor for inspiration, and everybody loved it. There was a couple who came to see the play who had also seen it in London. They said that the "Master of the House" (Monsieur Thenardier) in our high school play was the best they'd ever seen--better than London's.

I eventually saw the London play too--it was great. But even I found myself thinking of the Jack Sparrow-inspired version of Monsieur Thenardier, and how entertaining that demeanor was for that character.


It became clear that Jack Sparrow stole the show from Will and Elizabeth, and just about everyone else (and by the way, most the other actors selected predictiable or stereotypical demeanors for their characters). He became such an iconic figure, that even though other characters have phased out and new characters have come in, Jack Sparrow has stayed a constant. In fact, he's so vital to driving the franchise that if he wasn't in a Pirates movie, the movie would probably flop. A large percentage of people don't come for the plot. They come for Jack Sparrow. I mean, he was so successful, he now appears not once, but several times throughout the original Disneyland ride and they now have songs performed about him on the streets there--Jack Sparrow has become an immortal character. Compare that to the movie and characters (and tone and plot) we'd all like to forget in the Haunted Mansion movie that came out around the same time.

It was the strange and refreshing demeanor paired with Jack Sparrow's behavior that audiences fell in love with. The plot is great, with all the right emotional beats, the other characters and actors did great. There are a lot of things Pirates of the Caribbean did right. But I would argue that when most people think of the movie, they first think of Jack Sparrow.

We can create similar effects in our own writing with our own characters by playing around with behaviors and demeanors. We can even mix demeanors together first, like Johnny Depp did with Keith Richards and Pepe le Pew. If you want to create a funny or entertaining character, you might pair drastic opposites: a twisted murderer who's always cheerful, for example.

I've heard of an anime (haven't seen it) where the antagonist is always drawn smiling. I saw some images and clips of it. I don't even know the character's name, haven't watched it, but it stuck with me because it was such a unique, bizarre demeanor. I mean, there is this guy swordfighting with the hero, trying to kill him, and he has a smile in every single shot. In fact, I've heard he does not appear in the whole show without a smile. I first saw this character over 13 years ago, and I still remember the guy.

Most of the time, you don't need to go this drastic. Just look for an interesting combination.

Your thief doesn't need to be slimy like all the other thieves we see in stories. Maybe he can be a romantic. What about a bully who is pendantic? Or a rebel leader with a youthful personality (when he's 60)? Not all gay characters need to be flamboyant or feminine. Not all pirates need overly tough and overly masculine demeanors either.

You can consider this when creating main characters, but it's also a quick way to give life to very minor characters. You can make them feel like a unique person, and give a good impression of their personality in a short space, just by playing around with demeanors and behaviors.

Related Posts
The Most Important Thing About Character Voice
Action Vs. Words, The Loud and the Quiet
"The Emotional Range of a Teaspoon": Your Characters' Spectrum of Emotions

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