Subtext For Nice Characters?
- June 21, 2016
- Posted by: HalCroasmun
- Category: Articles
People often write "nice" characters, but many times, a nice character comes across as bland or superficial or even dull.
For a nice character to be interesting, it has to have something going on beneath the surface. You want this character to be liked, but you need the character to be interesting, maybe even intriguing.
How can a nice character have subtext without becoming evil?
I often get that question when I speak at conferences, but it is usually phrased like this:
"What! How can my character have subtext? They're nice."
The answer is simply this:
Subtext has nothing to do with "nice."
Stay with me here. If combining "nice" and subtext is confusing for you, then you'll love what you're about to learn.
In almost every screenplay, there's a "nice" character. And it often takes more work to discover their subtext than that of an "evil" character. But once you do, you have a role that many actors will be drawn to…and you'll show up as a pro. So it is worth it.
Subtext is about deeper meanings. "Nice" is how the character behaves, maybe even a character trait.
Once you have established that your character is nice, from that point on, we expect them to be nice. Now, what are you going to do with that?
A person could be nice, but confused at the same time. Or they could be nice, but unhappy. Or they could be nice, but be angry about some situation. Or they could be nice, but they have bad luck.
BTW, these aren't the only ways to give a nice character subtext, but they will assist you to discover the subtext in your nice character.
TWO TYPES AND TWO CATEGORIES
First, there are two types of character subtext. They are:
- CORE subtext, which exists at the heart of who the character is. This is subtext at the trait level.
- SITUATIONAL subtext, where the situation demands subtext from the character.
Both forms of subtext are valuable. For this article, I'll focus on situational subtext for a nice character.
Second, let's divide nice characters into two categories. They are:
Nice…and have good intentions.
Nice…but are covering bad intentions.
The first is a genuinely nice person. The second is a bad guy who is hiding his evil plan/actions with a nice veneer. Obviously, the bad guy is easier for subtext because he is often doing the opposite of what he is saying.
GENUINELY NICE, BUT HAS SUBTEXT
But how can the genuinely nice person be doing the opposite of what he is saying? Again, either core subtext or situational subtext. For this article, we'll work with situational subtext.
Here are five (of hundreds) of situations that could cause a genuinely nice character to say one thing and do another…while not violating their niceness.
1. Nice…but must protect themselves/family from bad guys.
The moment you place a nice person in a life threatening situation, the audience expects them to do whatever it takes to survive.
Suddenly, we expect the nice person to lie, cheat, steal, scheme, etc. in order to protect their family. In fact, they wouldn't truly be nice if they politely gave the bad guy everything they needed to kill their family, would they?
2. Nice…but has a strong need to be polite in negative situations.
This isn't about withholding or lying. You simply have a character who doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings or believes that being polite is more important than giving bad news.
It is the "If you can't say something good, don't say anything at all" syndrome.
3. Nice…but doesn't know who to trust in a high-stakes situation.
When your nice character thinks anyone could be the real bad guy, how can they tell the truth to anyone? They've got to protect themselves until they discover who is good and who is bad.
4. Nice…but is scared and can't acknowledge the fear for some reason.
This could happen for all kinds of reasons — maybe they are being blackmailed, maybe they witnessed a terrible crime, maybe they've been threatened, or they did something bad that couldn't be helped.
And what keeps them from acknowledging the fear? Could be pride, not wanting to scare others, not wanting to accept blame, etc.
5. Nice…but has to do what they are told…even if they think it is the wrong thing to do.
Ever hear of politics? A young politician has to follow the party line in order to get elected. Or they make a deal in order to get one bill passed that includes giving up another bill…and hurting some people in the process.
This could happen in situations that range from military to job related situations to communities to relationships.
This list could go on and on.
The point is that you can have a genuinely nice character who still delivers deeper meanings throughout your screenplay.
My advice: Look closely at the situations you put your nice characters in and see how many ways you can naturally cause them to have to hide, withhold, or protect themselves by not saying what they mean.
If you are willing to put your characters into difficult situations, you'll be surprised how many how many times their subtext naturally emerges…
…even if they are nice.
And if you like what you've read here, take a look at our Subtext Secrets class. It's filled with professional-level subtext techniques for delivering more meaning in your screenplays.