When we remember out favorite movies it’s usually the characters we remember first. Think Gone With The Wind and you think of Scarlett O’Hara, Star Wars and you think Darth Vader. Think Silence of the Lambs and you think Hannibal Lecter. Pirates of the Caribbean is Jack Sparrow. Wizard of Oz and you think Dorothy… and the Tin Man, and the Lion and the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch of the West who scared the life out of me as a kid, though my favorite was always the Lion.
As writers we know how important a killer concept is, an unforgettable logline you can pitch in twenty seconds, a plot that adheres to all the conventions of your genre. All these things are a given, but when a reader is wading through a ton of spec scripts that tick all of these boxes, if the characters haven’t been developed and simply go through a series of plot functions that get us from A to Z then we just won’t care and your script won’t stand out from the crowd.
We’re all emotional creatures – whether you’re a script reader or a movie-goer we want films that take us on an emotional journey, ones that reminds us of the agony and the ecstasy of the human experience. Great movies give us characters that we can connect to.
“Characterization is about a writer’s grasp of what a human being is” – Andrew Miller
Psychology fascinates me – there’s not a personality test I haven’t taken or a friend I haven’t (secretly) analyzed. I’m not an expert, I’ve got no formal training in psychology but I am insatiably curious about what makes people tick. I always wonder how other people’s perceptions of the same event differ from mine and why. When presented with the same dilemma, why does my friend make a different choice to me? I’ve always found the Myers-Briggs personality types a really useful tool when thinking about character. It’s based on Jung’s theory of psychological types and breaks down into the following: Extraversion or Introversion, Sensing or Intuition, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Perceiving. From these simple differences sixteen personality types are formed. If you already have a plot but need to create a character to fit, for who this story would be a particular challenge, then this can be a really useful way of shaping the perfect character type.
Another useful way in to your character might be to complete a comprehensive questionnaire about your character. I created a fairly mammoth one here – you get bonus points if you can get to the end of it! But knowing where your character grew up is nothing unless you know their attitude to it. A young woman growing up on small farm in Kansas who wants to marry a local boy and settle down is not the same character as the girl growing up on small farm in Kansas who wants to escape to the big city (Dorothy, Wizard of Oz).
‘Character is action’ is an oft used phrase, and rightly so, but how can you know how your character will act unless you know their attitude? Two characters with the same goal (a store worker desperate to clock off) will react very differently to the customer who walks in a minute before closing time, depending on their attitude – do they smile politely and hide their frustration, do they make some sarcastic comment about the time or do they jump up and rush to shove the customer out of the door, slamming the ‘closed’ sign up as quick as they can?
Some writers like to discover more about their character by putting them into scenarios and discovering what they do, and then working out what makes them tick from how they behaved. Imagine your character turning up at a party with a hundred people already there. Now write (free-flowing, no editing, a stream of consciousness) about what they do. You can try giving your character likes and dislikes, tics and quirks and bad habits, and then figuring out what these tell you about your character.
Others dig down deep and figure out what lies at the very core of their character before placing them in situations that might challenge them. What are their fears, their secrets and their obsessions? What makes them vulnerable? What are their strengths; the qualities and character traits that others (and the audience) might admire in them? What are their weaknesses and flaws?
Making your character memorable and engaging doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make them ‘nice’. Personally I find ‘nice’ characters a bit boring as it’s a rather insipid description applied to a character about whom we know very little. I’d much rather a character was interesting than nice. Characters who are all strengths and show no flaws (not even a hint of one) and who are practically perfect in every way are not only dull but also unbelievable. I know we’d all like to think we’re perfect but we’re not, are we?! Although this is slightly more contentious, I’d also suggest that characters that are a mass of flaws with not even the possibility of redemption are no more interesting than those that are perfect. I know we all love a good baddie but as your protagonist we’ve got to feel that there is more to them than evil personified.
The characters that stand out, the ones we find compelling and fascinating and that we remember long after the film has finished, are the flawed heroes. They are that truthful depiction of a man or a woman who is neither perfect nor truly awful, but a fascinating mix of strengths and weaknesses, full of potential and surprise, whose journey will take us on an emotional rollercoaster. Great characters are also often at war with themselves; there is a battle between who they really are and the façade they wish/choose to project to the world. One way to discover where these interesting battlegrounds lie is to explore the difference between what your character might say in answer to questions about themselves and what you know to be the truth about them.
Some types of character crop up over and over again, as recognizable in ancient myths as they are in Hollywood blockbusters. You’re probably already familiar with Christopher Vogler’s list of archetypes in his work ‘The Writer’s Journey’; Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally (sidekick), Trickster. These can be viewed both as the functions that characters perform in the story and as character traits within the protagonist. They can also be really useful when exploring the mix of characters in your story and ensuring that your characters are differentiated.
Blake Snyder offers another useful , if somewhat smaller, list of archetypes that crop up repeatedly in Hollywood movies, like the troubled sexpot (Veronica Lake to Angelina Jolie), the good girl tempted (Doris Day to Reese Witherspoon) and the young guy on the rise – a little dumb but plucky (from Harold Lloyd to Ashton Kutcher).
Of course, the problem is that film and literature is now full of these archetypes repeated thousands of times over. In fact, repeated so often that they’ve become stereotypes – the rebellious teen, the grouchy old man. So, how do you make your version of this character type feel fresh and original? If you’ve built your character out from its core then there’s a good chance it will already feel new and unique. If you still need to give it a twist, you can always try projecting an unexpected characteristic onto a stereotype – any takers for the grouchy old man who secretly loves extreme sports or a rebellious teenager with a secret passion for knitting?!
We all know the power that having a leading actor attached can bring, so if you want your spec script to make it to the next level, why not create a memorable, fascinating character that leading actors will be fighting each other to play and that audiences will remember in years to come?
- Balls of Steel: Therapy for Your Character
- Balls of Steel: Character Evolution Requires a Writer’s Evolution
- Specs & The CIty: Empathetic Heroes and ‘Cinderella Man’
Tools to Help: