Boy, I wish I could write great characters. Then I would feel qualified to write an article on them. But in all honesty, I can’t lay caim to that (what? you cry. Humble? Moi?). So instead this is just about a few techniques I use to write characters that might work for you.
William Goldman said famously that screenplays are structure.
But if you’re like me, you’ll want to know how to populate your story with great characters. They can make the difference between selling a screenplay and it ending up in the slush pile.
More importantly, they can also make your story into something that will hopefully last longer than the popcorn you bought going into the theatre.
How many times have you seen a (usually big budget action) movie, and been carried along by the stunts, explosions, etc. only to never watch that movie again?
In contrast, how many times have you watched certain movies over and over again?
Why do you do it?
What do The Terminator, Casablanca, The Producers, and Frankenstein all have in common?
What would The Terminator be without shrinking violet waitress-turned-badass Sarah Connor? (Answer: Terminator 3)
What would Casablanca be without the outwardly cynical but morally sound Rick?
What would Annie Hall be without the neurotic Alvy Singer?
How about Dirty Harry without Harry Callaghan? Or Rocky without Rocky Balboa? It’s no coincidence that many successful movies have character names as their titles, or even the occupations of the characters (Ghostbusters or The Goonies).
Okay. We get it. Characters are important. They keep us interested in the movie long after the special effects aren’t so special anymore. And SFX go out of date really quickly. Have you seen The Matrix Reloaded recently?
But I digress…
So here are a few tips I use when designing characetrs.
1) Real Life
Yes, sad but true. Real life actually inspires a lot of art. You remember real life? The stuff that goes on when you’re away from your computer? Sometimes it can be smelly and unpleasant?
Take a walk down any street or through any mall (if you’re an American) and make a mental note of the different people you see. Try to imagine their backstory. How did they become that person? The weirder (or rather “more interesting”) the people, the more extreme the characters.
If your protagonist is a quiet guy or gal, a little shy maybe, then try having a nemesis who is exactly the opposite: brash, loud, confident.
If your protag is a straight-forward, no-nonsense, action type, try having a nemesis who is sneaky and never gets his or her hands dirty.
For a good example of this, see Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard.
One of the ways to make a protagonist interesting is to make them the best at what they do. James Bond, for instance, is the best spy. Wolverine out of the X-men is an unstoppable fighting machine. The ultimate example of this is Superman – he flies, is invulnerable, always saves the day, and he never lies. He is perfect in every way. yet that’s his curse. Which brings us to…
Heroes have to have a flaw to be likeable. We all root for underdogs. Arnie in End of Days is faced with insurmountable odds. It makes him human (-ish). Rick in Casablanca is bitter and cynical due to the loss of his love. But we understand why; Ingrid Bergman is quite a catch. Wolverine in X-Men is prickly (literally) because he was mistreated by the military.
Heroes must have a flaw or they become boring. Like Tomb Raider.
Would Bruce Willis in Die Hard talk to himself in a neurotic way about his situation the way Woody Allen does in Annie Hall?
Would Rocky Balboa set up a complicated sting operation the way Luke Skywalker does in Return of the Jedi in Jabba the Hut’s palace?
That’s consistency. Characters must act according to their personalities throughout the entire screenplay. This is a tough one.
For an example of where this rule is broken, see also Die Hard. John McClane (hero) bumps into an unarmed Hans Gruber (baddie). Gruber pretends to be an American hostage. He does it so well that McClane hands him a gun. Gruber uses the gun on McClane. But guess what? McClane knew Gruber was Gruber the whole time, and the gun is unloaded! But then Gruber’s allies burst onto the scene, removing McClane’s advantage anyway.
Now this may be a good example of misleads and reversals (have to make that the subject of a later post), but it’s bad characterization. Why? Because McClane is a blue-collar cop while Gruber is a criminal mastermind. How could McClane possibly KNOW that Gruber is a terrorist? What gives him this blistering insight? Throughout the script we se that McClane is an underdog, a likeable Joe who just happens to be a cop in extraordinary circumstances. McClane exhibits almost superhuman perceptiveness in figuring Gruber’s identity.
So why did Die Hard make a ton of money? Well, it’s full of surprises, which audiences like. And don’t forget the superhero factor. We want McClane to beat the incredible odds. So we forgive and forget this unsupported character reaction. But it’s still there. It’s a minor “jumping-the-shark moment”, which is one of my favourite movie sayings. But more of that another time…
So I hope this has been remotely useful. Great characters have been filling up our screens ever since Ebeneezer Scrooge (and a good deal before that). So have fun with them.
Chances are, if you come up with characters based on real life, you won’t fall into the trap of writing yet more cookie-cutter one-dimensional video-game characters.
I, for one, am tired of seeing girls with swords kicking-ass, girls with guns kicking-ass, or girls in PVC catsuits kicking-ass (never thought I’d say that).
Now I’m off to try to put this into practice with my own script…