There’s a simple lesson in effective characterization you can see at work in the musical Hamilton, which I was lucky enough to see this summer.
Although the musical packs a ton of exposition about Hamilton into the first song, I’m not referring to a character bio or backstory.
Sure, it was reasonable for Lin-Manuel Miranda to do a lot of historical research. However, if your characters are not historical figures, creating bios for your characters is often a waste of time.
We instead learn about characters through their actions and choices in the context of a story.
The hosts of Scriptnotes have expressed a similar opinion. Here is what John August said in Episode 341, “Knowing vs. Discovering”:
“[A] lot of times before writers will start writing a script they’ll do these elaborate bios for their characters about where they come from and how many brothers they have and what their favorite cereal is. And I’ve never found that helpful for me because if I know those details, part of me wants to use it in some way, which is almost never going to be helpful. And by locking down those details I’ve taken away my ability to be surprised by something that happens in the moment.”
John then adds this about writers who do backstories: “They’re describing a character who is like in a museum. But the characters we see in stories are in motion.”
In the PBS program Hamilton’s America, Miranda also talks about how he needed to put aside his research at some point and just create these characters as he saw them in his story.
So Simple, It’s Insane, Man
So, what’s the simple approach Hamilton takes?
In Hamilton, Miranda establishes each character’s defining trait, or manner of being, and then keep showing that trait, over and over again.
The defining trait of the Alexander Hamilton character is boundless, impatient ambition. As a result, we get scene after scene of Hamilton being ambitious, impatiently pursuing the things he wants, and tirelessly accomplishing things.
It’s true that the musical also emphasizes that Hamilton is always talking, always speaking his mind, and always writing, but these behaviors are just an expression of his defining trait of boundless ambition.
As for the Aaron Burr character, his defining manner of being is resentful observation. In every scene, he is more observer than participant, cautiously watching and judging and resenting that Hamilton’s aggressive style keeps working out for him.
The defining trait of the George Washington character is paternal wisdom. In every scene, he is wisely counseling Hamilton on one thing or another. “Dying is easy, living is hard.” Etc.
First Impressions Count as Much in Fiction as in Life
Another trick you can use that Hamilton employs is to have the very first thing your character says illustrate their defining trait. In other words, the first words out of Hamilton’s mouth should be the most Hamilton thing we can imagine him saying.
These are Hamilton’s first words in the musical, apart from identifying himself: “And there’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait, just you wait.”
There we have his defining trait–boundless ambition–with the first words out of his mouth.
Here are Burr’s first words, and they are the most Burr thing we can imagine Burr saying: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman . . . grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
These lines are Burr in a nutshell: a resentful observer trying to understand how this nobody Hamilton goes on to these great things that largely elude Burr. He is the perfect narrator for the story because he is always observing and resentfully commenting on things.
But What About Other Personality Facets?
Once you establish the defining trait through repetition, you can then reveal other sides to the character.
For example, after establishing Burr’s essential core, Miranda introduces another facet to Burr: his love for his daughter.
But first you need to keep hitting the audience over the head with the dominant trait.
If your character is a schemer, show him scheming in different ways in each scene.
If your character is a hothead, show him being a hothead in each scene.
If your character is morose, show him being morose in each scene.
This approach of establishing and repeating a dominant trait is so commonly employed in fiction that it’s the reason we say of people in real life, “Oh, he’s a real character.” People reserve this expression for someone who does the same thing or acts in the same way over and over again.
Imagine, for example, you have an uncle who is always telling funny stories and making everyone laugh. Every time you see this person you get the same consistent experience. The same dominant trait or manner of being comes across. And we associate this kind of consistency with characters.
Why Repeating the Defining Trait Works So Well
This approach to characterization works for two main reasons: First, it gives the audience a simple handle for understanding the character.
Even if in real life people may be contradictory and complex, characters should be simpler because the audience then buys them more easily. We expect a certain consistency in characters that we don’t expect of people in real life. In real life, we’re moody, contradictory, and inconsistent.
But imagine if Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins was suddenly indifferent to crime or corruptible for a scene or two. You’d wouldn’t buy it.
What passes for normal in real life is bad writing in fiction.
The second reason this approach of repetitively showing a defining trait works is that if you want to arc your character, you need to first establish the pattern. You establish a pattern by repeating things.
Thus, Groot only says, “I am Groot.” We get that multiple times. Then, we break the pattern to show the arc: “We are Groot.”
(Of course, you have to show why the character breaks the pattern for the arc to feel “earned,” but that is a topic for another post.)
So, if you want to write characters that come across clearly, figure out their defining trait, keep showing that trait, and find a way to make sure the first thing your character says expresses that trait.
Parallels Between Music and Story Design
It’s worthwhile to note one more thing that Hamilton demonstrates: the parallels between music and stories.
In most musicals, including Hamilton, there are a number of melodies or musical motifs introduced and then re-visited later in slightly different ways.
For example, the first song in Hamilton has a melody that repeats in two other songs, with Burr each time narrating some part of Hamilton’s life over the same basic melody.
King George’s initial melody is also repeated twice in slightly altered forms.
Other musical moments or motifs also get repeated, such as all the “outs” George Washington sings in his first song, Right Hand Man, in which he refers to being outgunned, outnumbered, outmanned, and outplanned. Then, in the song Stay Alive, Washington returns to this motif by singing “outrun” and “outlast.”
The “helpless” refrain from Helpless also gets repeated in the song Never Satisfied.
Similarly, in stories, writers introduce elements and then revisit them. We set up an element and return to it either through a payoff or a build and a payoff.
Stories and music also share a parallel structure: stories build to a climax, while music builds to a crescendo, with the climax and crescendo incorporating elements of what has come before.
For example, the final song of the first act of Hamilton and the final song of the musical incorporate several motifs from earlier songs, just as a story climax and denouement typically incorporate and re-mix all or nearly all of what has been set up earlier.
[If you want to read more about climaxes, check out The Case for Writing the Climax First.]