Thursday, September 22, 2011
I was originally going to post something else today but had to scrap it at the last second. So I decided to post my character checklist document instead. This is something I'll occasionally send off to people I give notes to who are having trouble creating interesting characters. The problem with most screenplays isn't that the writer doesn't have an interesting character in mind. It's that they don't understand how to convey that character in a way that the reader sees what they see. So many writers believe that everything about their character will simply emerge onto the page magically, like something out of a chapter of The Secret (Australian accent and all). Wrong. We don't know something unless you tell us. So to help you, here are eight ways to make your characters come alive.
1) A great description – A reader must get a sense of your character after you’ve described them. “Tall and thin” is boring. “Ichabod Crane on crack” evokes an image. Having said that, make sure the description matches the tone and genre of your story. I wouldn't use “Ichabod Crane on crack” in a drama, for example, but I might use it in a comedy. Here’s a description of Christina in the original draft of Source Code. "In contrast to the corporate suits around her, her appearance is thrift store funky: black nail polish, dark lipstick, black hair with blue streaks, a button-down blouse edged in black funeral lace with silver skull and bones cufflinks.” I would probably encourage something more sparse, but as long as your description gives us a strong sense of who your character is, you're in good shape.
2) A great entrance – Usually reserved for your key characters – give them an entrance that’s worthy of their character. Obviously, the best example is Indiana Jones. One of the key reasons we love that character so much is because of his entrance. He's exciting. He's brave. He's great at what he does. But hey, that's not the only way to create a memorable entrance. Look at Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Between his hypnotizing voice over, and his sad assessment of his daily routine ("That’s me, jacking off in the shower."), we know just as much about Lester as we did Indiana. Memorable entrances are so important in making your character jump off the page.
3) An action that immediately tells us who they are – This is sort of an extension of number 2, but I can’t stress it enough. There’s so little time in a film, and just like in real life, first impressions are everything. So you want to make sure we know *exactly* who a character is when we meet them. If your character is a genuine asshole, give us an *action* that *shows* us he’s an asshole (he’s yelling at another character for a trivial reason). If a character is weak, give us an *action* that *shows* us that he’s weak (show him/her backing down from a confrontation). In Jerry Maguire, for example, we meet Rod Tidwell complaining about how he doesn't get any respect, which is his defining trait throughout the film.
4) A fatal Flaw – That one thing that defines your character, that’s held them back their entire lives. The thing they’ll need to overcome to solve the big problem facing them at the end of the story. Rocky Balboa’s flaw, for example, is that he doesn’t believe in himself. This is something that should come up repeatedly in the script, something your main character should be bumping up against again and again. So in Up In The Air, for example, George Clooney's fatal flaw is his inability to get close to other people. That's why he's easily able to fire people. That's why he has meaningless sexual relationships on the road. That's why he barely talks to his family. That's why he gives seminars about the power of being on your own. At the very least, you should give your main character a fatal flaw. But I like to give a few of my secondary characters fatal flaws as well. It just makes them deeper.
5) Backstory – Anything to give us a little context about your character's life is a good thing. But backstory is tricky because just like exposition, it needs to be integrated in a way that doesn't slow the story down. Nobody likes when a character starts talking about their past for four pages. Borrrrring. Also, you only want to include backstory that will later play into your current story. So it's fine if your character was abused as a child. But if they're not going to confront that abuse at some point (such as the way Will Hunting does in Good Will Hunting), then we don't need to know about it. Contact is a great example of a movie that uses backstory to dramatize the present story. The backstory was her father’s unexplainable death. Which could've been pointless and merely an attempt to draw sympathy from the audience. But the father's death ends up shaping everything that the main character does. The whole reason Jody Foster starts studying aliens is to find an answer to all of this, to find some meaning to her father's death. So the right backstory can really propel your character forward. You just have to integrate it in a way where it doesn't slow the story down and where it informs the current story.
6) Goals - This is a Scriptshadow article so you knew there was going to be some discussion of goals. I like to give my characters two goals. The first goal is the story goal, the one that drives them forward. So in Back To The Future, Marty's goal is to get his parents together so he can get home. The second goal is one I don't think enough writers think about - the life goal. It's what the character’s ultimate plan in life is. The reason this is so important is because it's one of the biggest insights into who a person is. If you know a person, for example, whose life goal is simply to become rich, that's very telling. If you know a person whose life goal is to bring fresh water to 60% of Africa, that's very telling as well. Just by those descriptions, I'm sure you're imagining two completely different people. So in Back To The Future, Marty's life goal is to become a musician. It's not profound. It's not the most original life goal in the world. But it does give us more insight into who Marty is. Had Marty wanted to be a pharmacist, for example, he would have been a completely different character. So make sure to think about what your character ultimately wants to do in the long term.
7) Secrets – Secrets always make characters more interesting, whether it’s something from their past or something about themselves they don’t tell other people. What your characters hide is very telling. In the upcoming Shame, Michael Fassbender's secret is that he's a sex addict. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman hides her fear that she's not good enough, which is a big part of her character. The right secret can add a lot of depth to a character.
8) Characteristics/quirks/clothes/personality traits/grooming – Any detail you can give a character to make them stand out, do it. Maybe they have a soul patch. Maybe they have OCD. Maybe they wear jean shorts. Figure out who your character is, and try to find some detail that symbolizes their essence. So if you have a character who's lonely, such as Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, have him be a collector of toys/action figures. Or look no further than Napoleon Dynamite to see how a combination of all of the above can create a unique memorable character.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how little or how many of these character tools you want to use. My opinion is that your leads should utilize all eight of them. As you go down the ladder of supporting characters, that number will go down as well. But if you want characters with depth, this is how you get them. Good luck!
Posted by Carson Reeves at 5:55 AM