Giving Your Characters Personalities

I had a very nice weekend, especially on Saturday. If you live anywhere near (or are planning to be visiting) the Allentown, PA area, you must stop in at the Allentown Art Museum.

Why, you say? Because until September 16, 2007, they have a fabulous exhibit of Warner Bros cartoons. I am an utter maniac when it comes to Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, to the point where I can pick out individual cartoons just by listening to the opening music (of the cartoons themselves, not the usual themes at the very beginning).

It's a wonderful little exhibit, which include model sheets and everything else an animator needs to ply his/her trade, at least back during the 1930s-1950s. They also play cartoons on TVs interspersed throughout the space, plus they do give a live guided tour on Saturday at 2:00pm.

Hubby and I didn't need a live tour guide, as we had me. (Hey, bub, how's that for humble?)

Now you're wondering, "How the hell is Nancy going to tie this in with writing?"


Actually, I got to thinking about the different animation directors for Warner Bros. over the years, staring with Tex Avery (who came up with the definitive Bugs Bunny, as well as Bugs' classic phrase, "What's up, doc?"), continuing through Bob Clampett (whose animations included people and animals with huge crania), Friz Freleng (the first of the WB directors, who came up with WB's first star, Porky Pig), and Robert McKimson (his contributions included Foghorn Leghorn and the Tazmanian Devil).

But the one I want to concentrate on is my favorite, Chuck Jones.

He was more into the psychology of those characters he created and the ones he refined. For him, there had to be reason for Daffy Duck exploding into action, or for Bugs declaring, "Of course you realize, this means war!" For Daffy, it was self preservation, with an intense greediness; for Bugs, he neither wanted to be physically nor mentally humiliated or attacked, so he had to fight back - in his own way, naturally.

As the main characters developed, especially in the 1950s, when Jones' unit seemed to surge to the forefront with idea and such, he imbued these "backstories" onto his characters. The result? More depth, more of an understanding of where these characters are coming from, and why they're reacting the way they do. Now, Bob Clampett had Daffy doing silly, inane things just for the sake that they're silly and inane, and that's all right; I enjoy Clampett's cartoons specifically for those reasons.

But as a wannabe writer, I take comfort in the fact (and you'll see even more reason why in a moment) that Jones did this with "beings" that really aren't more than graphite and paper (in its most primitive form). A man introduced Chuck Jones to his young son as "the man who draws Bugs Bunny." His son corrected him. "No, he draws pictures of Bugs Bunny."

Damn. That's what I want people to say about my characters; that they find the characters interesting, that they want to know more, yadda, yadda, yadda. The young boy paid Jones quite a compliment.

The comfort factor in this? When Chuck Jones started out back in the 1930s, he said he was overwhelmed at becoming a director; in fact, he was scared out of his wits. You'll notice that his cartoons of that time (up until about 1941) had characters that were in scary circumstances; and that his cartoons cleaved tightly onto the Disney mold of realism.

For whatever reason, he broke out of that, most likely in a cartoon called The Draft Horse (this is done on the verge or WWII or at the very start of the U.S.'s entrance into it; one frame that I remember is of a horse being drilled into holding up his legs, until all of his legs are in the air!). In this particular instance, he broke away, completely, from the Disney thing and from characters that are scared of their surroundings. This isn't to say the early Jones concoctions are devoid of humor; they're not. But I think Jones finally figure out for himself what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish in his cartoons; he had a sense of himself, a sense of determination and a trust of his own abilities.

If he can do that with cartoons, why can't we do that as writers? It might take a while (as it did for Jones), but as we continue to write on a daily basis, as we continue to say, "Hey, yeah, that's how it's done," as we continue to gain confidence, why shouldn't we be able to get our stuff published?

Onward, forward...and don't forget to give your characters personalities that we'll be piqued by, whether they're mostly good characters or mostly bad characters.

~Nancy Beck