Characterization & Location: What I Learned Watching Reruns

Monday, April 02, 2012
Recently my husband decided to introduce our son to the X-Files, so I found myself watching the pilot. At one point, the camera work grabbed my attention. 

Scully and Mulder were having a l-o-n-g conversation. Perhaps in an attempt to make talking heads more interesting than they really are, the camera would show only one character at a time. First Mulder. Then Scully. Then back to Mulder. Now back to Scully. Back and forth. It was a very long conversation, and, if you don’t remember, Mulder was quite a bit taller. So when they shot him, the camera would be angled up as if Scully were looking up at him. When they shot her, the camera was angled down. Down. Up. Up. Down. 

But then something else hit me. In the shots of Scully, the down-to-earth scientist, the shots always show the grassy ground in the background. Down-to-Earth. Ground. Get it? Then the shots of flighty, spooky Mulder, show sky and tree branches. 

Before I was a writer, I might have thought it was a coincidence, but now I know this was more than just background. It was a simple visual that reinforced what we knew about the characters. 

Think about your main character. How would you describe her? Is she studious and determined? Or carefree and full of fun? Come up with several words that describe your character. 

How would you show these things through your story’s background? Obviously, unless you are illustrating your own graphic novel or picture book, you aren’t likely to have visual background within your control. But you do control, the setting which could consist of your character’s home, school, or workplace, her backpack, purse or the back seat of her car. 

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “This is a story for kids. My main character is only six years-old. She doesn’t have any control over how her school or her living room looks.” No, she doesn’t. But you need to think beyond simple appearance. This isn’t a matter of interior decorating. It’s a matter of revealing your character through location. 

If your teen character is super studious, set the scene in an advanced placement class at school. A character who is all about the bottom line might get a scene set in the checkout at the grocery or in front of an ATM. 

The next time you create a scene, think about your character. How can the setting reinforce who the character is? Its definitely something I’ll be thinking about as I work on my current fiction project. 


Author Sue Bradford Edwards blogs at One Writer's Journey.


Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

Interesting that you caught the two background settings of the conversation between Mulder and Scully. As writers, we catch on to all sorts of tricks and techniques not only in books, but in movies and other visuals as well.

Creating a background is a very useful subliminal technique, not only for characterization, but also for mood and contrast.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Miss Footloose,
How right you are! I actually covered how to use it in setting mood in an article I wrote. I'll have to noodle over how it applies to contrast.

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