Two sources come together for some insights into character, both on the page or screen and maybe even in real life.
Robert McKee draws a distinction between characterization and character. Characterization is the outward manifestation of character, all the physical looks and actions that identify a person. Character is the secret reality that doesn’t mesh with characterization.
Subtext is the motivation in a scene that comes from deep within character and that goes against the apparent motivation.
Characterization might be a sunny disposition and cheery manner that hide deep hostility and envy. In the text of a scene, the sunny character may compliment another character’s hairstyle. Subtext could be that she thinks the hairstyle looks stupid and wants the other character to fail, or it could be that she thinks it’s stupid, but lacks the confidence in her own judgment. It’s a motivation to speak that she doesn’t reveal to the other character and perhaps not even to herself.
Debra Tannen, a sociolinguist and author of a number of books about conversation styles, draws a distinction between message and metamessage. The message is the direct statement of the words. The metamessage is carried not in the words but in the tone, timing, even the choice to speak rather than not speaking. In conversation, the people who drive you crazy are the ones whose message and metamessage conflict, the ones who say, for example, “I like your hairstyle,” when everything about their way of speaking lets you know that the truth is exactly the opposite. You can’t respond on either level. If you respond to the message, then you prove yourself oblivious to the more important metamessage. If you respond to the metamessage, the response is, “What did I say?”
In storytelling, whether on paper, stage or screen, all three levels come into play. The message is the words of dialogue. The metamessage is the broader communication, of which the words are only a part. The subtext is not message at all, not meant to be communicated, but it must be communicated to the audience, even if not to the other characters.
But sometimes the borders between metamessage and subtext can be fluid. Think of the question, “Why are you telling me this?” If you ask, then you’ve become aware of subtext (even if you haven’t identified it). An answer to that question moves subtext to metamessage, whether the communicator intends it or not. If you answer the question wrongly, the wrong subtext becomes part of the perceived metamessage, even though the true subtext is still hidden. This is often the source of plot twists in a story like Charade or The Spanish Prisoner that keeps characters and audience guessing where reality lies.