Fully live characters leap off the page and out of the screen at us. We become fascinated by them, want to spend time with them, care about their hopes and fears.
Think of Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Mr Darcy, Sarah Lund, Gregory House… and also anti-heroes, villains and bit parts in a thousand movies and TV programmes, from Hannibal Lecter to Private Godfrey.
To create living, interesting characters, you need to draw on your experience of life, and add to it. Or to put it another way, bring us your unique take on people.
1. Draw on people you know
Some of the best characters come from the people around you. But, strangely, that rarely means direct copy. You don’t have to portray your friends and relations, in fact it’s often best if you don’t (if only to avoid loss of said friends and libel actions).
I usually take a combination of character traits from a number of people I know and combine them for best effect, and no-one has so far ever recognised themselves.
One of my favourite characters, an aged, homicidal Portuguese farmer, was based in part on my maternal grandmother. She was neither Portuguese nor homicidal, but she gave me just the right flavour of salty sharpness and odd-ball humour the character needed. And she never knew.
2. Surprise us
Does your lawyer need to be white, male and middle class? Does your drug dealer need to be young and black? These are obvious clichés, but also watch out for the less obvious assumptions we all make. Surprise us.
Boogie Nights is full of surprising twists on character. One of the most memorable is the almost invisible part of a night-club doorman – invisible that is until it was decided that he should be enormously camp. That one twist made what was virtually a walk-on part stand out.
3. give them contradictions
Strong characters show strong contradictions. The boxer who loves ballet. The good detective who can’t stop shoplifting. Contradictions bring characters to life.
Othello can fight anyone, except his own jealousy, which brings him down. Jed Bartlet is a liberal history buff and an economist, who – in more than one episode of The West Wing – has to be restrained from overusing American armed force. How many of your characters could gain from being less consistent?
4. give them goals
All the characters in a well-written script have goals, even the smallest. The taxi-driver whose only role is to find the briefcase, what might her goal be?
Without a goal, she becomes a mere plot device. But give her a goal, say, to get home quickly, or to mend the car stereo, and the character (and the scene) come to life.
5. give them flaws
People are not perfect, not even heroes. Flaws draw in an audience. We care about House all the more because of his almost autistic inability to empathise, his drug abuse, his bolshie attitude towards his colleagues.
Without those, he’d be a clever-dick who wouldn’t last a scene, let alone eight series.
6. give them strengths
At the same time, characters need to be good at something, whoever they are, even if they are evil incarnate! Hannibal Lecter has charm, intelligence and considerable talents, even if they aren’t necessarily put to good use. Even Hitler is given strengths in Downfall.
At the other end of the scale, Norah Ephron took care to ensure that both Harry and Sally had strong positive elements to their characters – this indeed is what attracted them to each other. Harry has the practicality and groundedness that Sally needs to counterbalance her. While Sally brings a positive attitude to Harry’s dark broodiness.
Your characters’ strengths show us why we should care what happens to them.
7. find their picture
Can you see your characters in your mind? In how much detail? I always want to have a clear picture of each character before I write them. (This does not mean that I will write that picture in the script – it’s far better to leave that to the reader’s, and casting director’s, imagination).
One very useful trick is to “cast” your characters from photographs, for example in magazines or on the Internet. Here’s an exercise: search through Google images for pictures that fit the characters in your current script. This is particularly valuable for any character who is refusing to come to life, or insisting on remaining a cliché.
8. hear their voices
Harold Pinter started The Homecoming with two lines of dialogue. That line would suggest two voices, and from those two voices grew one of his greatest plays.
Listen for your characters’ voices. You may find them in your head, or on TV or sitting next to you in the tube. Then, when you have their voices, listen to what they tell you. You may find your characters tell you more about themselves, and even more about how the story should go, than you ever could yourself.
If this is useful to you, you might also like:
Fun writing exercise – using the moment
Four steps to starting a compelling script
Give your flashbacks the kiss of life
Why do we call them Screen – Plays?
Avoid the mistakes made by would-be thriller writers
And you may like to check out the courses I’m running in London and elsewhere. You can find details here