“Nuance” is thrown around a lot in critiques, but do you actually know what it is? What it means? How it looks in characters? It’s something we all seem to say that we want, but do we really know what we’re asking for? Let’s dive in!
For this, I’m using characters from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” for reference. Why? Well, it’s a fictional world with space aliens and science fiction, but was also home to a lot of great characters. The setting’s backdrop was using Cardassians, (Star Trek’s version of Nazi’s), and Bajorans, (Star Trek’s version of Jews) set in a time directly after a mass occupation/extermination of Bajoran’s under Cardassian rule. The show dives deeply into politics, religion, faith, family, and more; and instead of just saying, “all Nazi’s are evil”, the show prefers to show you the different characters, their points of view, and walk you through a story. At the end, it’s usually up to the audience to decide how they feel about the characters involved.
Nuance: a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.
In performance terms, especially acting, we usually say a performer is trying to act with more than one note: just like hearing the “The Star Spangled Banner” played only with the C note would be boring beyond belief, so too are most characters who don’t have any nuance.
Fictional Characters with nuance, like the ones I pictured from Deep Space Nine, will…
- They have virtues and vices – This one has to top the list. The character is going to have a mix of things they do well, things they do poorly, character virtues and character flaws, all of which get presented. For example, Captain Benjamin Sisko is a monogamous husband, widower, father, Starfleet leader, and at the start of the series, becomes a spiritual part of the Bajoran religion, where he’s looked at as a spiritual leader or advisor. But Sisko isn’t perfect; he can hold a grude, he has a bit of a temper, and also is just as capable of being an accomplice to some morally dubious acts as the rest of us.
- They will learn, change, and grow – this is what develops that character’s arc. Usually poor, unnuanced characters feel very unsatisfying because they don’t learn, change, or grow during the story. For many protagonists, this is the crux of the “Hero’s Journey”. Even antagonists and villains should learn, change, and grow through the story if you want them to be dynamic, exciting, and alive for the readers. Characters like Kira have massive story arcs that put her at odds with her commanding officer, the head of the Bajoran faith, and Cardassian officers. Kira Nerys is one of my favorite female characters of all time because Nana Visitor and the writing team gave her lots of layers; any scene with Sisko she’s talking to her commanding officer, a friend, a Starfleet representative, AND a major part of her religion! That’s a lot of fuel for the actress to play with, and she runs with it.
- Use subtext – What they say may cover a deeper meaning. The character of Garak is the master of subtext, both subtle and non-subtle. In fact, much of his character is built around the craft of masterfully lying, to such an extent that he may even try to tell you the truth within the lie he’s telling.
- Play two notes simultaneously – Dukat is infamous as basically the commander of a fictional Auschwitz, but he sees himself as a hero; the actor plays both notes masterfully and simultaneously. He justifies his evil actions with selfishness, denial, patriotism, and more.
- Vary their cadence – Avery Brooks, who played Sisko, has one of the strangest speaking and breathing cadences I’ve ever heard out of an actor… but somehow, it works for Sisko. Andrew Robinson, who plays Garak, is the master of an interrupted cadence; he starts his phrases fast and curt, and then mellows out in the later parts of his sentences.
- In other words, they way the characters talk isn’t monotone, and even beyond that, has a particular flavor to it. You can read the text on the page WITHOUT seeing the character’s name and still know who the line belongs to.
- Are emotionally colorful: they feel a lot in any given moment – They aren’t just angry all the time or sad all the time; in fact, they can vary between many emotions in the time it takes to snap your fingers.
- And this one is my opinion, but I truly believe that nuanced characters should end up having an impact on the characters around them, and BE impacted by the characters around them! It’s a two-way street!
You’re going to know when a character is lacking nuance and falling flat pretty fast. They play very few notes, what they do doesn’t seem to vary much or make sense.
- They won’t have a lot to say or do that has meaning to themselves or others
- The plot moves the character, and they are merely reacting.
- You don’t feel like the character helps push or motivate the characters around them or move the plot forward
- They seem bland, uninteresting, and always doing/repeating the same things
- They are given enormous amounts of exposition from the author and the characters in the writing to describe how “awesome” the character is, but you’re not actually SHOWN how that character is awesome.
We see flat, boring characters all the time. They’re usually in books, TV shows, and movies we find forgettable. The key to really good nuanced characters is to give them depth: how does this character feel? What’s their Point of View? What do they need? What are they willing to do to get it? What are their virtues? What are their vices? And how does all of this play into how they talk, walk, and act around others?
If you do the legwork, and let it be honest to the plot, setting, and character notes, you should end up with a pretty decent character.