Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What Talking Cats Taught Me About Characterization

Last fall, a friend of mine ended up in one of those crazy You Tube spirals. You know the kind, where one person shows one video and it reminds another person present of another great video, which reminds someone else of another great video, etc. etc.

Along the way, they watched this, which my friend then shared with me:

I thought this was hysterical. I may have gone on to share it with dozens upon dozens of people (as I'm doing now.) And then I went hunting for the video's origins, which you can find in the notes of the video above. As it turns out, this was a video put out by the owner of the cats, with no voice-over, and then several voice-over videos were created by other YouTube users (ah, the interwebs). And so I found this other, more popular voice over...
...and I really didn't think it was all that funny. Same cats, same actions, different voice overs. But why does one have me almost falling off my chair, and the other make me go..."Meh" ? 

The difference, I figured out, was in the characterization, and the way that the characters themselves create their own conflict. 

In the American English version, both cats, based on dialect and accent and "behavior" if you can call it that, seem to be similar characters. Young, perhaps millenial, words like, "Creeper," and constant use of "Dude," etc. It paints them as pretty much the same kind of "guy," and even though they have the same problems (one gets hit in the face, they can't continue, they have a camera on them), the focus of the conflict winds up being external—the camera causes problems, one cat doesn't know how to do the game, etc.  

In the French version, by contrast, the left hand cat is given a very different personality than the right hand cat. He's more playful, perhaps younger, more willing to tease, and more. The right hand cat is portrayed as stodgier, perhaps older, more critical, less willing to have fun. The conflicts that arise are internal--based on the two "characters" having different expectations of the situation. 

The clash of two personalities feels richer, and gives a different dimension to the exact same film. Things are happening because the right hand cat and the left hand cat have different expectations of the situation, and participate in the situation based on those expectations. Everything that makes the French video funny comes from the competing personalities of the two cats, and the way those play out in their interaction. 

It became immediate food for thought for me.In my current revising WIP, one character is more serious and driven, the other more playful and carefree. And even though they're best friends despite being different, I realized that I could let some of the in-scene conflict arise out of those two different views on the same overall situation of the novel. It gives their whole sections an entirely different feel, and a better one, I hope.  

Personality is key to creating good inter-character conflict. How do your characters' personalities clash?

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