It’s my character

  1. Characters are defined by what they do, first and foremost. And how they do it. So they have to be as different from each other as possible, in what they do and how they do it, and what their goals are, in order to appear distinct.
  2. The audience likes to be surprised by your characters. Whether they are nice is not, ultimately, as important as whether they are surprising.
  3. It’s easier for smart characters to be surprising, but dumb ones can manage it too, with a bit of ingenuity on your part.
  4. You know when a character is surprising, funny, impressive, because you will be surprised, you will laugh, you will be impressed.
  5. Find something to admire in all your characters.
  6. “The really terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.”
  7. Coincidence and plot convenience are bad mainly because they have nothing to do with character.
  8. “Character is destiny.” What happens to characters is determined by who they are because they are actively struggling with their problems.
  9. Stealing characters is good practice. Putting them in a new context should change them enough. The surface details are the things than an audience will spot (ie Indiana Jones’s bullwhip).
  10. Get the plot moving right away because the character can’t be explored without it.
  11. Passive victims are not sympathetic. They might make us unhappy, but we can’t empathise.
  12. Villains should be extremely good at what they do. Stupid villains kill suspense by making things easy for the hero.
  13. If a character makes a mistake it should be understandable to the audience.
  14. It helps a lot if all the main character’s actions are understandable to the audience. Mysterious characters can be interesting but may not invite identification.
  15. “Audience identification” is much mor complicated than people think. The audience doesn’t need to agree with or approve of the character or resemble them in any particular. They need to understand them and find their struggles interesting. You can identify with a complete villain if you know what they want and understand the problems they face.
  16. Themes should emerge more or less naturally from the interaction of plot and character. Starting off with a theme can make a story sterile and artificial.
  17. “What the character is like” is just gossip. “What the character wants” and “what the character does” is meaningful and revealing.
  18. Force the character to make tough choices.
  19. A funny character is typically one whose personality prevents him/her from adapting to new situations. Inflexibility is key to most comedy. But you can sometimes go the other way and make a character funny and surprising by giving them an exceptional ability to adapt, because surprise is also key to comedy.
  20. If you have a character, put him/her in the worst possible situation for that specific person to be in: if they have a wooden leg, make them climb a ladder.
  21. With every character, give them at least one surprising or distinctive trait. The librarian with a single line of dialogue should still entertain us.
  22. Avoid the typical.
  23. “Likeable” isn’t a strong trait. If we genuinely like somebody, that’s great, but having them be fascinating is the main thing.
  24. “A passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”
  25. A character needn’t to succeed to impress us, but they need to struggle.
  26. Write with a specific actor in mind. But don’t then try to cast somebody who’s like that actor.
  27. Showing a character’s daily routine is a lousy way to characterise them, almost as bad as panning along their mantelpiece.
  28. Take each character as far as you can dramatically.
  29. Every character has his/her own story.
  30. Conflict is indeed a good way to express character. But as long as you have dramatic tension it should emerge anyway. Conflict is just an interpersonal form of tension.
  31. Perhaps we care about relationships more than we care about individual characters?
  32. What else? Ask the next question.

I found this checklist on my work computer. Apparently I wrote it for a class, used it once and forgot about it. It sounds a bit too Syd Field/Robert Mckee to me now, but if you don’t take it as prescriptive it may be a useful tool for avoiding certain problems in screenwriting.

Thanks to David Wingrove for the Big Head of Pola.

7 Responses to “It’s my character”

  1. Simon Fraser Says:

    Interesting , this should help me with a chunk of writing I need to do. So thanks. Sorry , no questions at this time.

  2. Love this.

  3. Thanks! And great to know it might be useful to someone.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    My own discovery while writing: Don’t give heroes imaginary flaws (the beautiful girl who thinks she’s ugly and/or is implausibly thought ugly by other characters; the hero who thinks recognition of danger makes him an unworthy coward; etc.) that can be erased with a Good Talking To (the CGI “Peanuts” movie had the Little Red-Headed Girl explaining to Charlie Brown he’s not a failure at all) or a simple mechanical triumph (“The Big Deal Expert Who Just Showed Up sez YOU’RE the best singer / athlete / writer / infantryman of us all!”).

    I had a hero who, in early draft, unreasonably doubted his own decency. It finally dawned that he should have done something genuinely contemptible, no excuses, and his life since has been shadowed by the knowledge he COULD be that awful. It made his present day decency a little more desperate, like a guy eating healthily because of scary medical issues; his modesty a fear that taking credit for what he’s forced to do with corrupt it.

  5. Good call!

    When Nick Ray was asked why he made his heroes so neurotic, he said they were no worse than the audience, and when they triumphed, the audience could say “That could be me.”

  6. bensondonald Says:

    One more twist on identifiable heroes:

    In Douglas Fairbanks’s “Man in the Iron Mask”, the young king is good because in Doug’s gallant fantasies, nobles are noble but for the very occasional villain. The twin is an evil twin, raised by traitors.

    In every later version I’ve seen — all indebted to Fairbanks more than Dumas — it’s the humbly-raised twin who is good and noble. The king is corrupt and nasty, and it’s the good guys who end up placing the proletariat brother on the throne.

    Recalls the line about British war movies being about officers, and American movies being about privates.

  7. Excellent! Despite reading all the D’Artagnan romances, I couldn’t recall what line Dumas takes until I looked it up. His twin had been a prisoner since birth! And nobody sees him as suitable king material, but only as a potentially useful puppet monarch. Hollywood wasn’t going to like that idea.

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