One of the hardest things to do when crafting a story, any kind of story, is to create convincing characters. If a story sucks or is rejected by a publisher or producer, nine times out of ten it’s because the writer did not spend enough time developing the characters. Or the actual story!
And there is nothing worse than reading a story in which a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way – unless, of course, their uncharacteristic behavior is occurring because of an integral plot point. I have read umpteen books and screenplays where a character has done something totally out of character and jolted me from the narrative. No doubt you have too.
So, how do you create characters that ring true, are psychologically true. How do you keep your story simple but your characters complex? How do you make your characters memorable?
Well, it’s certainly not about giving them weird ticks and other inventive sorts of attention-grabbing characteristics. Creating great and memorable characters, that readers want to read or that audiences want to see, is not about giving your characters weird ticks and hiccups - it’s about giving them three dimensions. And first and foremost that means understanding the theme of your story. I always make sure I’m clear on theme, or themes as the case may be, then I think about how my characters could/might/will act in light of that theme.
Creating three-dimensionality means giving your characters negative traits as well as positive ones. It means giving them weaknesses as well as strengths. It means knowing their desires and how far they will go to obtain them. It’s about your characters’ morals and values and how far those morals and values can be bent, or even broken. It’s about the way characters interact with other characters. It’s about the way they behave under pressure. It’s about the choices they will be forced to make or reveal in every action they take, and in every line of dialogue they speak.
And for every single character, every one of those traits must be woven into and around the characters’ needs and desires.
When developing characters for screenplays, I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to create mammoth character sheets and backstories. Not now, this is just my opinion, but I think if you’re clear on a few main points – and don’t deviate from them when you’re writing your story – then you will have well-developed characters.
As you may or may not know, in screenplays, there is simply very little time or story space to go into enormous character detail. As such, your characters need to be rock solid with very little exposition. Film is a visual medium, as such when writing for this format you should be thinking visually.
I start with a profile sheet that addresses the following:
- What is the central question of your narrative? What is your character (protag) trying to achieve?
- What is your character’s psychological need?
- What is the character’s moral need?
- What is your character’s desire?
- What are your character’s values (no more than 4)? What does the character believe above all else?
- What is your character’s weakness? (What is the physical manifestation of your hero’s weakness or fear? For example, Indiana Jones hates snakes – and the reason he hates snakes was a defining moment in him becoming ‘Indiana Jones’. A weakness is something like a bad habit.)
- What is your character’s strength?
- Who/what is stopping your character from achieving/obtaining that desire/goal?
- What is your character’s moment of self-revelation? (the defining moment that forces the character to realise they need to change)’
- What does the character learn from the antagonist?
- What happens if the character fails? What exactly is at stake? (Be very clear about this – no stakes, no conflict, no story)
- What is the character’s moral development?
Now, like I said, this kind of profile is great for a screenplay, which is no more than a 120 pages of sparsely written text. But it’s not really meaty enough when developing characters for a novel. So what do you do then? How do uncover more information about your characters and their backstories?
When I was developing characters for my novel, I interviewed them. Interviewing characters is a time-honoured method of getting to know your characters better and the things you learn about your characters using this technique is truly remarkable. If you’ve never done this before, or aren’t convinced of its usefulness, I urge you to reconsider. Honestly, I did not think it would be a valuable exercise. When I tried it, I realised I was wrong.
So, what sort of questions do you ask your characters? Where do you begin? There are dozens of sites on the web that list interview questions. Here’s a few to get you started:
Do a quick Google/Bing search and I’m sure you’ll find a dozen or so more sites. Some will be helpful, some won’t. And you are, of course, free to create your own customised list.
Finally, a quick word about the importance of naming your characters. I confess I can spend months on choosing the right name for my characters. Terry Rossio, the brilliant screenwriter responsible for more than one Hollywood blockbuster, said on his Wordplay website, “With the exception of your screenplay's title (and the occasional brilliant bit of dialog), character names have the potential to contain the most creativity, symbolism and style in the tightest amount of space”.