Good Characters: If You Don’t Have Them, Your Script Is Dead

gciydThough I’m usually not fond of blanket statements – especially those coming from teachers of writing – I make this one with little trepidation: Character is the single most important element in a script. One can have ever-so-many great ideas, story twists and eye-popping effects, but if the characters don’t work …what you have is a big ball of nothing.

Character is the engine that powers the script. All else is chrome.

Stories are about people. What an audience needs when it enters a movie palace or sits blithely before the tiny tube with remote in hand is a tale of human spirits in conflict. Anything less is tantamount to criminal activity.

Characters Beyond Definition

How do writers create strong, solid characters? Random House Dictionary lists no less than 27 different definitions for character, but it’s the very first that I find most appropriate:

Character: the aggregate of features

and traits that form the apparent

individual nature of some person

or thing.

That single sentence conveys a wealth of knowledge. Burn it deeply into your brain when considering characterization. Let’s take a more detailed look.

The aggregate of features and traits… The plural nature of this phrase implies that character has more than one dimension. This is a significant fact of characterization: A good character has more than one note. He or she (or even it) must possess many different identifying features that can be used to illuminate whatever struggle he or she or it is caught in. It’s this variety that makes a character colorful, interesting and, above all, human.

… that form the apparent individual nature of a person or thing. I emphasize the use of apparent in this definition; when, we apply this definition to scriptwriting, we must go beyond the word’s literal meaning.

Surely, film and television characters are apparent; we form an opinion about them based solely on what we see and hear. Yet at the same time, the individual nature of a film or televison character is largely apparent in that the characters appear to be individuals, but also function as archetypes of the basic human spirit. Film and television characters must function as individuals, yet also connect with the mass consciousness of their audience.

Creating Your Basic Archetype

You accomplish this curious mix by starting with a freewheeling overview of the character you’re trying to create. At this stage you’re not looking to chisel anything into stone, but you are testing the waters to see what will float.

The easiest place to begin is with a name. If the character is a major player in your story, you’ll want to give him or her a first and last name, and perhaps a middle name as well, The name should fit the basic concept of the character – if you’re creating a tough, no-nonsense mercenary, you don’t want to call him Waldo Ignatius Potwobbler (unless you intend a comedic send-up).

After the naming, fill in the obvious information about the character: height, weight, age, skin color, eye color, hair color, ethnic grouping (which, by the way, isn’t the same thing as skin color. A black American character will be quite different from a black African; a Chinese character will not be the same as a Japanese character, etc.). What you’re going for is a clear mental picture of whom you’re dealing with.

Next, describe how your character dresses. While it isn’t necessary or desirable to describe every piece of apparel a character will wear throughout a film, it’s good to have a general idea of whether the character dresses shabbily, in great style or with an eclectic taste.

Attire can even be used to identify the character. For example: In Sergio Leone’s first two spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood’s character (“the Man With No Name”) wore a distinct Mexican serape. In the third of this series, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the same character was played without the serape, until the last part of the film when he acquires the very same garment from a dying soldier. When he dons it to face the villain, the audience reacts profoundly, sucked in by a neat piece of cinematic manipulation, all based on the familiar attire of the character.

Getting to Know Your Characters

After handling the superficial details of a character, proceed to more in-depth study. What’s your character’s profession? Most of the time, the story itself will answer this question. If you’re doing a crime thriller, your main character will likely have some link to law enforcement – a detective, a cop on the beat, a crime reporter or a criminal. However, it’s also possible your main character is the crime victim, which will send you in a different direction for profession.

Profession isn’t terribly important in many scripts, mainly because we aren’t dealing with the character in a professional capacity. (In the National Lampoon’s Vacation series we constantly follow a family on vacation, thus what Dad does when he is working is less vital.) Nevertheless, profession is a good defining element for a character and can provide fodder for interesting scenes.

Consider your character’s education. Did he or she finish high school, college, graduate school? Is the character uneducated or self-educated? The level of education will dictate how well or how poorly the character expresses him- or herself. One doesn’t expect an uneducated blue-collar worker to suddenly expound on the philosophies of Nietzsche or a college professor to be ignorant of basic math.

Education, like profession, may not be that vital a part of the character arc and yet there are many examples where it was a key factor. In Charly, the title character is a retarded man who gradually gains the intellect of a genius through a scientific experiment, only to find that the change is temporary. This bittersweet tale demonstrates quite handily how intelligence, or lack of it, affects character. (By the way, for an interesting comparison, rent Charly and The Lawnmower Man, which tell basically the same story with vastly different levels of effectiveness.)

Give Them Religion

Now that you’ve given your character a job and an education, consider the character’s religious beliefs. Religion is probably the least-used character trait in film and television. When it does show up, it’s usually in films like Monsignor or Schindler’s List, in which religion plays a major part of the conflict. I have always found this omission rather odd, given that religion is a strong factor in the human equation. (Well, not so odd. Religion is a sensitive area, and most commercial media would rather ignore it than risk alienating their audience.) I find it useful to give a character a religion; the mere fact that I was told that Ivanova on Babylon 5 was Jewish led me to a story about her sitting shibah for her father.

The next step in deep-thinking your character is attitude. How the character will react to the situations in your story and how his or her attitudes will change because of these situations is the most basic fundamental of scriptwriting. Is the character angry, timid, amorous, straitlaced, eccentric, flamboyant, confident? Does the character flow with the situations or does he or she defy them outright?

A good shorthand method for assigning attitudes is to consider a normal situation. For instance, send your character to a fast-food restaurant and receive the wrong order. How will the character react? A Dirty Harry-type might muscle the counterperson to get his hamburger the way he likes it. A Woody Allen-type would probably take a softer approach and likely fail.

When considering character attitudes, remember that, just as in real life, attitudes will differ with the situation and with the other characters they must relate to. If your main character is normally a very angry person but is courting another character who dislikes displays of temper, that character will have to soften his or her attitude or lose any hope of winning the object of his of her affections. Such attitude adjustments make it possible to write richer and more powerful scenes.

Skills and interests are other areas you must consider when creating a character. What can the character do? If she is athletic, what sports does she play? What are the character’s hobbies? Does he play cards, bowl, fish, collect things? This might seem trivial, but I can’t count how many times I’ve come up with a better scene, or even a whole story, just by knowing what kind of things the character likes to do.

The final step in character construction is story-specific. It consists of two very important decisions: What is the character’s goal in the story, and how will he or she work to achieve it?

If this is so important, why is it the final step and not the first? Good question, and (for once) I can answer it easily. Until you have a clear idea of who your character is, it’s next to impossible to decide what that character wants, and how to achieve it.

DiTillio’s Disclaimers

A few caveats, of course.

* Do not go into such realms of detail with every character in your piece. It’s only your main characters (protagonists and antagonists), and the more recurring supporting ones, who require deep thought. Neither you nor your audience cares about the education, religion, attitudes and goals of the guy who shows up to deliver pizza in one scene.

* If a writer is aiming his or her pen at an episodic television series or an ongoing film series, this method of character creation is less useful. Series characters are already defined by their creators; the writer’s job is to catch these characters exactly as they appear week after week. Good TV-show bibles (slang for writer’s guidelines) will lay out most of the character traits I’ve talked about. Woe to the writer who tries to invest an episodic character with some quirk, interest or attitude that the character’s creators haven’t already assigned them. Conversely, a good writer will actively seek out areas in a character profile that haven’t been used often in the series and build stories that manifest these things. (An example: In the bible for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Capt. Picard is said to have an interest in archaeology. This interest didn’t show up much in the early seasons of the show, but later it cropped up in several stories that centered on the redoubtable Captain, and even provided him with a love interest.

* There’s both a good side and a bad side to writing a character with a specific actor in mind. The good: If you write a character you think would be perfect for a Geena Davis, a Tom Cruise, a Meryl Streep, or a Jack Nicholson, it becomes easier on the creative side to picture that character in your mind. Even better, on the commercial side, if you can interest an actor with the clout of a Cruise, a Streep, etc., in your script, the sales process becomes infinitely easier (star-driven, as we call it out here in Hollyweird).

The bad: It’s lazy. You don’t have to create a character if you clone one. Novice writers will often cast the picture in their head and then write it for the voice cadences, body language and physical presence of the star. Unhappily, in most cases they base this writing on previous performances; what they come out with is a generic “Jack Nicholson/Tom Cruise/Meryl Streep” character. The best (worst?) example I ever saw was a spec script insisting that the main character be played by Danny DeVito. The writer had nailed DeVito’s voice cadences, but they were the cadences of DeVito’s Taxi character, Louie DePalma. Compounding this typecasting was the fact that the lines weren’t very funny, and you sensed they only had a prayer of approaching funny if Danny DeVito said them on Taxi. So what happens if DeVito doesn’t want to do it? You’re left with another actor playing Danny DeVito’s character from Taxi in a film that isn’t Taxi. Hard sell.

* You must care passionately for the characters you write about, whether they are your own spawn or somebody else’s. They must be real to you, physically and emotionally. When you hurt a character you like, you should feel their pain. When you join two people in love, you should feel all warm and squishy inside. When your villain drives a screwdriver through a dog’s head, you must take sadistic pleasure in it.

You need to go into yourself for this information. Like an actor performing a role, you must use your own emotional matrix to bring your character to life. All the emotions you see boiling around on the screen are inside you, and the more in touch you are with those emotions, the better writer you will be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *