Great Characters -
Their Best Kept Secret
by James Bonnet
Have you ever wondered why characters like Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, Achilles, Scrooge, Dorothy and Superman go on forever? The real secret of their immortality lies in something you've probably never equated with the creation of a great character or a great story -- the quintessential. But if you fathom the secrets of this remarkable quality, you can use it to make your characters truly charismatic and merchandisable and just about everything else in your story more fascinating.
According to the dictionary, the quintessential is the most perfect manifestation or embodiment of a quality or thing. It is the ultimate, good or bad, best or worst, example. The world's fastest runner is the quintessential runner. The world's deadliest snake is the quintessential deadly snake. Hitler is the quintessential megalomaniac. Einstein is the essence of mathematical genius. He is symbolic of genius.
Applied to story, it means making the story elements the best example of that element. And that is, in fact, what great stories are all about. Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements.
Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king. Camelot is the most fabulous kingdom. Excalibur is the most powerful sword. Samson is the strongest man. King Herod is the nastiest tyrant. King Solomon is the wisest and richest king.
It is the key to their success. Why? Because if you make something the most extraordinary example, you will make that idea more intriguing. A secret chamber is fascinating in itself, but you could make it even more fascinating by making it the most intriguing secret chamber of all time. The black hole of Calcutta is more fascinating than an ordinary prison. A perfect murder is more fascinating than an ordinary murder, and the most perfect murder of all time is more fascinating than your run-of-the-mill perfect murder.
If your story is about ghosts, injustice or romance, taking that subject to the quintessential will make that subject more fascinating. In 'Romeo and Juliet,' the subject of love is taken to the quintessential. It is the greatest love story of all time. 'Harry Potter' is about the most extraordinary magic the world has ever seen. 'Gladiator' is about the greatest tyranny. The Roman Empire is itself the quintessential empire. 'The Perfect Storm' is about the storm of the century. 'Titanic' is about one of the world's worst disasters. All of which adds considerably to our fascination and interest in these stories.
The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.
Harry Potter is not just an ordinary young wizard, he is the most famous and powerful young wizard of all time. Sherlock Holmes is the most brilliant detective. Dracula is the quintessential vampire. Iago in 'Othello' is the most treacherous servant. Don Juan is the greatest lover. King Kong is the biggest ape. Jack- the-Ripper is the most infamous serial killer. Superman is the most powerful super hero. Genghis Khan is the quintessence of barbaric conquest. In 'Gladiator,' Maximus is the greatest gladiator that ever lived. In 'To Catch a Thief,' Cary Grant is the world's best cat burglar. In 'Armageddon,' Bruce Willis is the best oil driller in the world. The dead people haunting the little boy's mind in 'The Sixth Sense' are the most terrifying of specters.
The dominant trait is the dominant character trait which the character personifies. Every truly great character has a dominant trait that has been taken to the quintessential.
Sherlock Holmes' dominant quality or trait is deductive reasoning. Achilles' dominant trait is anger. 'The Iliad' is everything you ever wanted to know about anger. Othello's dominant trait is jealousy. King Midas' is greed. Ebenezer Scrooge's is miserliness. Don Juan's is lust. Macbeth's is guilt. Sir Lancelot's is chivalry. Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio's conscience. Rick's dominant trait, in 'Casablanca,' is disillusionment -- he's a disillusioned patriot and lover. They are quintessential personifications of these qualities. That is the secret of their success. And that is the key to making your characters truly memorable and merchandisable. Take their dominant traits to the quintessential.
Archie Bunker is one of the most memorable characters that ever appeared on TV. Why? He's the quintessential bigot. You take a quality like prejudice, arrogance, conceit, courage, sincerity, generosity, loyalty, jealousy, lust, greed and so on -- learn as much as you can about that quality, personify it, put it in the context of a full human being, and slowly evolve this newly- created character into the quintessence of that dominant quality.
How would you create a charismatic figure like Napoleon? You take a quality like inflation or military genius and work with it until you evolve that character into the quintessence of those qualities.
How would you create a character like Stalin? You take a dominant quality like paranoia and do the same thing -- you work with that dimension until you evolve that character into the personification of that trait.
How would you create an immortal character like Dracula? You take a dominant quality like blood lust and make that character the quintessence of that characteristic.
What qualities would you combine and evolve to create a Fred Astaire? Dance and charm. He is the quintessence of those qualities.
How about T-Rex? How would you create an adversary like that? You take a quality like aggression and evolve that beast into the biggest, most aggressive carnivore that has ever lived. You make him the very essence of aggression. The ultimate example of aggression.
When you do this, your characters will become symbolic. You can put them on a T-shirt, and they will have impact and meaning. If you put Harry Potter, Hannibal Lecter, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Beethoven, Mother Theresa, Charles Manson or Nixon on a T- shirt, it will mean something. Why? Because they have come to symbolize something. They personify some important human quality. Characters like Scrooge, Aphrodite, Eros, Hercules and Samson are unforgettable and symbolic because they have a fully realized dominant trait. Characters that can't be merchandized are probably not very good characters. They need to have their dominant qualities further purified and evolved.
Can a story be about an ordinary person? Of course. But make him or her the most ordinary person that has ever lived. Make them the quintessence of ordinariness, the best example of ordinariness, and you will make those characters fascinating.
What about a dull person? Yes. But make him the dullest person ever, and if you get Bill Murray to play the part, it will be very funny. It will be fascinating. People will flock to see it.
In fact, Peter Sellers' character in 'Being There' appears to have been just that. He is so dull, he's fascinating.
When the characters, events and dominant traits actually reach these ultimates and make this psychological connection, they become charismatic, which is to say symbolic. People will be attracted to them and influenced by them, even if they don't know what they mean.
Characters that possess this charisma become like deities. Oedipus, Moses, Zeus, Jesus, Achilles, Krishna, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and King Arthur are unforgettable; and Chaplin's tramp, Rhett Butler, Dorothy, E.T., Dracula, Mickey Mouse and Superman are definite steps in the right direction. Put Superman on a little boy's pajamas, and it makes him feel stronger. He'll try to fly around the room. Put Nala, the young lioness in 'The Lion King,' on a little girl's sneakers, and it makes her feel frisky and ready for an adventure. Put Einstein on your T-shirt, and it will make you feel smarter. Put Genghis Khan on your leather jacket, and you're ready for a Harley. That's charisma.
James Bonnet was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writer's Guild of America and has acted in or written more than 40 television shows and features. The radical new ideas about story in his book 'Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Dynamic New Story Model For Writers And Filmmakers' are having a major impact on writers in all media. Bonnet also teaches the workshop 'James Bonnet's Storymaking: The Master Class.'