Character development is an art that requires much skill, and the willingness to both indulge, and show restraint. The tricky part is figuring out when to do one over another.
When writing a character, it can be very tempting to just pound away at the keyboard with a stirring monologue where they expose their darkest secrets, biggest dreams, and deepest most profound desires. There are great moments like this, like in Jaws when Quint opens up to Brody and Hooper about the horrors he experienced on the Indianapolis.
However, there is another part of this scene that is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. During the scene where Quint and Hooper are comparing scars, Brody lifts up his shirt to reveal a wound on his abdomen. It appears to be a more horrifying image than either Hooper or Quint has to offer. It looks like a bullet wound.
It makes sense. Brody is a cop from New York who spoke regularly about the violence in his home city. He very likely would have been at the very least fired at in the line of duty. What’s very telling during this scene is he doesn’t chime in about what happened to him. Quint was probably waiting for years to open up about his wartime experience, and tells the two men what happened down to the smallest detail.
Brody doesn’t, so one must infer that this scene was at the very least as traumatic to him as Quint, if not more.
One immediately wonders just what happened. Was Brody forced to kill his attacker in self defense? Did he witness the death of a partner? Does he feel guilt over having to shoot someone, or did something he do put his partners in danger so he feels deserving of his gunshot? All of this can be guessed from nothing more than a glimpse of his abdomen when he holds up his shirt. No monologging or info dumping required.
You see, small character touches can often be much more effective than big sweeping monologues. Sometimes a blunt and to the point statement can mean so much more than chapter upon chapter of someone telling about their past.
There are many number of ways to deliver a message in a short sentence or, as is common in film, do it purely visually. The back story of Annie Wilkes in the film adaptation of Misery is done with a look through a scrap book.
Another good example is in the movie Escape from Alcatraz. When Clint Eastwood is asked how his childhood was, he doesn’t go into a speech about how his dad was a drunk, how his mother never loved him, or how mis beloved puppy Skip was hit by a truck. His response is one single word.
In that one word, all the tragedy he has suffered, and all the anger he feels because of it is conveyed in an instant. Imagine if he did deliver a speech, and how much less that moment would have meant for us as an audience.
We can fill in those gaps with something far more effective than a monologue.
This is not to say monologging can’t be effective. Going back to Quint, we needed to hear all those details to understand just why Quint hated sharks as much as he did. There are many such great speeches from many greater characters. There is a time and a place for a monologue. In Quint’s case, it was a tragedy that he wanted to get off his chest, and he finally had someone willing to listen. It was right for his character to deliver that speech, and it was right for us as an audience.
There’s also a time and a place for a mystery. Annie Wilkes from Misery is not someone willing to admit her guilt in killing her lover and a series of infants, so her story would have to be learned by the hero and the audience by other means. As it would have been wrong for Quint to stay silent, it would have been wrong for Annie to reveal what she had done.
Sometimes, it is even more effective just to stay silent altogether. Halloween for example features a terrifying villain in Michael Myers. All we know about him is that as a six year old child, he murdered his older sister seemingly without any motive. He later escapes a mental hospital and begins a killing spree in his home town. We never find out why he does this, or if there even is a reason for his actions. Quite frankly, we don’t need to. All we need to know is he has a knife, and he wants to use it on Jamie Lee Curtis.
Yes, character development can be a very difficult thing, and sometimes it is very hard to tell when to go one way over another. The key to deciding this is to know who your character is, how they would act, and how much does your audience need to know in order to understand them. Sometimes they need to know a lot, sometimes only a little, and other times things are best left unsaid.