Characterization: Keeping a Little Mystery

In the screenplay book I’m reading, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay by Andrew Horton, the author uses the term “carnivalesque” when explaining how to develop real and memorable characters. Character is never complete, set, finished, but always glimpsed in motion from a certain perspective, he says, and quotes Seymour Chatman, “The horizon of personality always recedes before us.”

In a carnival, people are thrown into a place of the unknown, where anything can happen. Carnival is the time when no rules hold, when one can become whatever he or she wishes. And even if the writer knows a character’s core personality and uses this “core” knowledge to drive the plot of a story, there should remain a mystery, “a realm of the unresolved,” something neither the writer or reader can fully know or understand.

“The beauty of life is in its uncertainty,” the poet Yoshida Kenko says. And in a good book or film, sometimes we understand something without being able to explain it; we feel it and don’t know why. When I read these ideas, I thought of one scene in Little Miss Sunshine.The teenage boy who had all his hopes set on being a pilot finds out he’s color blind, runs off from the family, screaming out his rage and frustration, and he won’t return to the family van. The sister eventually comes down the hill where he sits and squats beside him. Nothing is said, nothing explained, but we understand without explanation why he returns to the van.

We all know those moments from books and movies. Creating them? I think to do so, we have to let our story have a life of its own, guided but not quite pinned down. There’s magic in that and I think the audience feels it.