In a technologically geared world, where VFX and Motion Graphics are taking the film industry by storm, proper character development is sometimes left at the wayside. Complex antagonists and detailed backstories have also taken a hit, alongside emotional depth and realistic personalities.
The hero’s flawless. The heroine well-groomed. He’s cocky. She’s funny. They laugh in the face of death. They drop corny one-liners even though they’ve got a gun pointed at their heads. There are faultless explosions and unconvincing reactions and it’s all a bit…
If you’re flicking through your script as you read this, and realise that you can smell a happy ending from a mile off, it might be time to revise your characters, as he or she could be a bit too predictable, and a bit too picture-perfect.
The same goes for your antagonist. Most people in real-life aren’t evil for the sake of being evil–they don’t have trademark wicked cackles and devious master plans. People have complex backstories that make them the way they are–and this is in constant development. The human brain is a slimy network of grey matter (literally)—there really is no black or white. And that’s okay to portray in your characters.
As I’ve said in other articles, conflict is the main driving force behind any story, and it’s the writer’s job to identify this and provide it through your character’s actions. Characters who don’t face conflict because they’re just so amazing at everything they do won’t make the audience worry about their outcome. A litany of failure and flaws is essential for keeping our interest in the film alive, and makes the protagonist’s eventual success that much sweeter. Perhaps it’s because we identify with their flaws, as we see our own shortcomings reflected back at us.
A good example of character building is in Lost, ABC’s drama series. Through a series of flashbacks, we can see how Jack Shephard is emotionally scarred by his father’s expectations, and how this shapes his entire thought process, fostering his exaggerated hero complex. Even his surname represents his position of leadership amongst the other crash survivors.
Charlie, on the other hand, is the ultimate underdog. Battling against drug addiction, through his flashbacks we come to understand how he used to protect his brother against it. The same goes for Kate: she may be manipulative and a murderer, but if you delve into her backstory, you come to realise she killed her stepfather to save her mother.
A sign of good character-building is when your audience sympathises with their plight because their backstory is realistic, detailed, and ultimately touching. It’s the Walter Whites and the Tom Ripleys of the world that cause a reaction within us. Characters with messed up minds and real-life human flaws.
Give your character a history. Think about what it was that made him the way he is. If he’s going to be cruel, what event-or sequence of events pushed him over the edge? If you can create a character which draws up mixed feelings–someone who we hate and pity and admire all at the same time, then you’re well on your way to creating multi-dimensional protagonists.
Being a good writer is also about empathising. We’re all shaped by our past; our thoughts and actions are guided by our backstories. So will your character’s. It’s up to you to help this shape your script. Stepping into your character’s shoes and attempting to see what the world looks like from their point of view will add this layer of much needed realism. You can’t convincingly write about your character’s phobia of bouncy castles unless you really understand that while comical, this phobia is as real to them as is your fear of a paper boat-pinching, gutter-dwelling clown…
What were your character’s parents like? Did she/he have a positive/negative relationship or is your character an orphan? Where did he or she grow up? What was the environment like? Did they grow up poor, wealthy or comfortably middle-class? How has this had a psychological effect on him or her?
Do they laugh easily? Andy Dufresne barely cracks so much as a smile all through Shawshank Redemption, yet all Harley Quinn does in Suicide Squad is smile, one is endearing, the other vaguely psychotic, yet both are equally interesting.
No two people are truly alike, and that is the beauty of character building–you have complete freedom to create as you will.
The same goes for the way your character speaks. Think of two people you know, and listen closely when they speak. Just as their accents might differ, one might drop the F-bomb five times in one sentence while the other might laugh too loud, a bit like a hyena. Is this endearing, or annoying? What reaction does it cause?
Think about your characters, emotionally. What scares them?
What is your character’s biggest regret?
Is there something missing from your character’s life?
First impressions always count and are a great opportunity for writers to show just exactly what is special about the protagonists.
In American Beauty, screenwriter Alan Ball introduces us to Lester Burnham via a voiceover. “This is my neighbourhood,” he says, as the camera pans down onto a suburban street. “My street. This is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.”
We sympathize immediately because he represents the middle-class monotony of suburbia. There’s an almost claustrophobic feel to the way Ball introduces him to us. As readers, we feel just as trapped as Lester does.
Juno Macguff, from Diablo Cody’s Juno, is pretty charming for a sixteen-year-old, and her quirky way of introducing herself gets us hooked from the get go. The first few minutes even include a flashback with backstory. We see Juno staring with rapt attention at a battered-looking leather recliner dumped on the side of a curb. It all started with a chair, she tells us. And then we immediately jump to a flashback, featuring the real chair in question. Note the creative way of linking a present object with the story line?
When we meet Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, however, no flashbacks are needed. He comes storming over the seas like a pro, with background music rising impressively, only for the shot to reveal his sad, sinking boat. His comic timing and debonair style are both portrayed within a matter of seconds, and the audience can’t help but like him the moment he steps onto the pier.
Remember, making characters people find relatable, someone to root for, is a big part of what makes a script successful. This doesn’t mean that you’ll spew out everything you know about your character in the first five minutes of your screenplay. You’ll have to reveal snippets as you go along, using different techniques.
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.