You go to the trouble to name them, give them actions, and maybe even death. But what does your character believe in?
When it comes to crafting characters, there's so much necessary thought and care. From writing the best character description to giving the best character arc, the burden is on the screenwriter to communicate who this person is to the audience, and to give the actor thoughts and motivations to make these people come alive.
Today, I want to talk about coming at character creation from another angle; their creed. No, I'm not talking about Creed the movie, although I think Creed probably has a creed. We'll have to ask him.
I want to talk about Omar Little, Crash Davis, and the things that make these characters tick...
What's Omar's Creed?
Of all the characters during the five-season run of David Simon's groundbreaking HBO series The Wire, none is as emblematic of the world and the struggle as Omar Devone Little, played by Michael K. Williams. A man has to have a code, he agrees with Det. Bunk Moreland during their first meeting at the station house. In the end, that code or creed will get him killed.
This creed helps solidify the morals of the show's theme. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, views the show as a critique of the excesses of unencumbered capitalism:
Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings— all of us— are worth less...Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.
One of the best video essays I've seen lately is this breakdown of Omar by The Take by ScreenPrism. In it, we explore who Omar is, who he surrounds himself with, and what consequences all of that has on his character. When you're writing a character, especially for television, you need to track their journey.
These character arcs matter, but you can't start the journey of your character without a clear place to begin.
So what does your character believe?
I'm not talking about religion, though that can factor deeply into a character, I am talking about how the world works.
Omar Little believes that life has two states of existence: you're either in the game, or you're not. And if you're in the game, anything goes. The game involves the moving and selling of drugs within the community. Omar has never been outside of Baltimore. Omar makes his money robbing drug dealers. He's not materialistic. He burns cash when he can. He's kind, gentle, and a lover. But he'll kill you if you get in his way.
This creates an environment of necessary violence. Omar knows that to protect the people around him, he has to kill all his enemies. But in an interesting story circle, Omar's creed is also what gets him into trouble. It's what gets his friends hurt, and it puts him in mortal peril over and over again.
Lucky for us, Omar is a survivor. At least, for a while.
"Come at the king, you best not miss." - Omar Little
Omar's creed is what defines him as a character, and it's evident in each of his scenes.
What your character believes should push their motivations in each scene. You should always be writing from a place that makes us understand why they do what they do. Because Omar is so clearly written, we always understand his actions in every scene.
Where did Omar get his creed?
Omar was raised by his grandmother after being orphaned. He credits his grandmother for his strict and uniquely cobbled-together code of ethics. He takes his grandmother to the church via yellow cab every fourth Sunday. Grandma thinks he works at a restaurant at the airport. Omar also got his disdain for cursing from his grandmother. As we build in this backstory to the creed we are also adding layers to the character, and intrigue to the audience.
Omar is tender and sweet in many moments. Perhaps his love comes from Grandma as well.
This gives us a greater understanding of his character arc as well. When Omar walks to the store to buy food and gets shot by a kid, killing him, we know that Omar is a victim of his own creed.
"Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my share of dirt, but I ain’t never put my gun to anybody who wasn’t in the game." - Omar Little
When the gun turns on Omar we realize this was the only way he could go. You don't play the game forever.
You're either the one getting, or the one getting got.
What about other character's creeds?
I believe there are underlying creeds for characters in most great movies and TV shows, but they rarely come out and say them. One of the best and most refreshing examples of a character using their creed is in Bull Durham, when Kevin Costner's character comes out and tells everyone what he believes.
It's a moment where he's reminding us that creeds come from a mature place and understanding of the world.
How can I give my character a creed?
One thing I've been working on is a way to be able to sit down and write out my character's creed. But I was thinking way too hard about it. A screenwriting exercise that I have never forgotten is the "Le Menu" from Claudia Hunter Johnson's Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect.
It's my favorite exercise to figure out what I should be writing.
Write five to ten answers to:
- What I love
- What I hate
- What I fear
- What I believe
- What I value
- What I want
- What I know about
- People who made a difference in my life
- Discoveries that made a difference in my life
- Decisions that made a difference in my life
Instead of using the exercise on myself, I decided that to figure out a character's creed, you should ask those questions of your character.
As you build out those wants and needs, you get a more complete person.
What's next? Check out Fleck and Boden breakdown a Captain Marvel scene.
When you are learning how to write a scene in the most effective way, it's great to hear from the masters. Whether you’re writing love scenes, fight scenes, or just two people talking, keep in mind the wants and desires of each character.
And remember, even Van Gogh had a rough time, so keep at it.
I can't wait to see what you write.