One of the techniques actors generally use (though not all of us) is to create character histories. Generally there simply aren’t enough real facts about a character to make them real when all we have to work with is the script (or in the case of animation, the script, storyboards and soundtrack). When we build character histories, our characters come to life, they become a little more real.
One of my favorite characters of all time is Shrek. When we look at the facts we’re given we find a very two-dimensional character. For over two decades I’ve been asking students what the “Facts” are about Shrek. The list is always similar. This is a story about a isolationist Scottish* Ogre who thinks he’s an onion. This is NOT a character, it’s a REALLY rough sketch, we have to flesh him out or no one’s going to relate. There’s no “right” answer, but two of my favorite histories to come out of classes are these:
SHREK HISTORY VERSION 1: As a teenager, he was driven out of Scotland by his fellow ogres who hated him because he was too soft. He comes to this mythical place where he’s heard everyone is nicer. They take one look at him and hate him because of the assumptions they make. He moves to the swamp and tells himself he’s happy there – – – truth is, he’s a lot happier alone than he is being with people who hate him. As an adolescent, he notices one of the girls in town, the mean girls pick on her and she’s a bit of a social outcast. He wishes he were brave enough to say something, but he doesn’t. One day the mean girls in town drag the poor girl out to the swamp, knock on Shrek’s door and leave her there in the mud. He goes to help her and she FREAKS OUT. Runs to the mean girls and tells them how awful it was. They hurl obscenities and rocks at him. Then she tells her father that “The Ogre tried to touch me.” Out come the pitchforks and the torches and they try to kill him. Suddenly, with a bit of imagination, Shrek stops being two-dimensional. He becomes a person we can relate to. Seriously, is there anyone out there who hasn’t thought at some point that the world was just too fricken mean and wanted to shut them all out?
SHREK HISTORY VERSION 2: Young Shrek lives in Scotland where he’s totally in love with a very cute Ogress. One day the entire village is celebrating a great victory. There’s going to be a huge banquet and fireworks. Shrek and his main squeeze sneak off to a convenient barn (which happens to be where the fireworks are stored) to get some Ogre love action. The hilt of his sword sparks on a stone and the entire town, including his honey, is wiped out . . . and it’s his fault. Now he lives far from Scotland and refuses to have anything to do with friendships or love…everyone he gets close to dies.
Neither history is “right” Shrek is fictional (sorry, you had to hear it eventually). The object is to create a character who is “real”, to find the humanity in our characters.
In our world, we have a tendency to judge, to look at the surface and decide what’s inside. Most, if not all, of us work to not judge on issues like race, gender, sexuality etc. but do we make assumptions based on things like posture, grammar, clothing . . . etc.? When we do that, we turn people into two-dimensional characters. We stop seeing them as real people with real lives. Do we ever do the same thing to ourselves?
Everyone has a story**, we may not have access to their stories, many people are private about there lives, but when we realize that everyone around us has lived through hard times and great times, failures and successes, our own lives become richer.
I think in the end, we’re all onions . . . just like Shrek.
Check out my next Blog – we’re going to look at how Shrek changed his life in some pretty coolio ways . . . and how we can learn from him.
*Scottish heritage courtesy of Mike Myers 🙂
**A former student of mine says he now uses this as his principle pick up line. “What’s your story? Everyone has one.” He says he gets to know a lot of really great girls this way. 😉