The thing I find most challenging about writing stories is drawing believable, three-dimensional characters. We are complex critters, you know—a lot deeper than simply words on a page. And there’s nothing I like less than reading stock characters engaged in stock activities in a cliché plot.
It all begins with character. If the character is fundamentally real, and if he accepts the world in which he lives as real, and if he reacts to the sometimes odd or bizarre world around him as a real person would, then we will believe the story as the story unfolds. Remember, the protagonist takes the reader through his or her journey, and the reader needs to be able to empathize or at least identify with the protagonist if the reader is going to take the ride, believe the ride, enjoy the ride.
When I start to play with ideas for a new novel I open my eyes and ears and brain to the world around me and I let everything in. Everything gets its say. A plot idea might morph into a character idea, which might suggest a setting, which makes me think of what might happen in this setting, which makes me think about what kind of person would do such a terrible thing in this setting, which brings me back to character. It always, always, always comes back to character.
Sometimes I’ll read a screenplay or novel where the plot is so BIG (think Independence Day) that the characters—the supposedly REAL people who participate in this story—have no other function than to appear at crucial plot moments to deliver critical bits of dialogue necessary to forward the plot. Writers who are aware that a book or screenplay should have a “romantic subplot” also take those stiff, non-dimensional characters and force them to coo at one another, giving them plot-specific opportunities in which to take off their clothes.
Just because a movie is BIG doesn’t mean it can’t have unique, well-developed characters. We can all think of five or ten big-budget types that titillate us with action and also bring us to tears with character pathos. Bladerunner comes to mind for me. It’s a big, action, sci-fi thriller, with wonderful, intriguing and believable characters. Every one of them is real.
It’s not hard to identify exceptional characters – just look at Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight for how he developed charming, daring, believable characters using mostly dialogue and a handful of reactions to specific events. Leonard’s work is brilliant in this respect. But recognizing a well-drawn character and actually building one are two different things.
When I spent my years doing development in the film business I rarely read convincingly believable characters. Most screenplays were plot-driven and the screenwriters who had the plot “chops” usually got more work than the “character” writers. But often, after the testosterone drafts made their rounds, a “character” writer would be brought in to do a “polish,” with the intention of making the characters more believable. We did this on Outbreak, bringing Carrie Fischer in to do an 11th-hour “character” draft. So, the character writer is supposed to improve dialogue, provide believable characters to inhabit what can be an unbelievably action-packed world, and take a little edge off with some comedy, when necessary.
Tackling character problems that late in the game doesn’t work, unless the writer goes back to the drawing board to tackle plot and action, too. You can’t simply adjust knobs on a character in hopes of creating new hues and tones. The characters need to move around in the plot, make decisions for themselves, change the plot if they have to. Film producers, for various reasons, want to “lock down” the screenplay. They’ll say “the script is 85% there, we just need you to do a dialogue polish and make the characters come alive.” To me, that’s a page-one rewrite. However, many screenwriters take that assignment and deliver a quick draft they know will never really work—they’re just trying to appease the producer and grab some quick cash.
What I mean to say with all this is…character work is hard. And it’s the most important thing to get right. Everything in a good story evolves from and revolves around good characters.
So, how do we write good characters? Well, we have our own characters to lean on. Parts of my character influence my protagonist as well as every other character I write. So, like Freud, we look inward, to our own psychologies. We can also look at mythic archetypes—certain types of characters who appear over and over again in our folktales, mythologies, biblical stories and nursery rhymes. Alexandra has written some the definitive blogs here regarding archetypes. We also learn about character from reading other authors to see how they handle character. Find your mentors.
Another way to develop great, believable characters is to observe the people who enter your sphere. Like a good Method actor, look for the little facial tics and the speech impediments and keep those ears open for the little wisdoms that might come your way. I got my lesson this week when I was moving from house to apartment. I hired this mover who ended up being a bit of a Buddha. Black, maybe fifty years old, muscles galore. Patient as the day is long. I’ve never met a soul quite as patient as him. We spent twelve hours straight on the move, and we encountered one problem after another. Finally, the last big object to go in—the refrigerator—and it just ain’t fitting through the doorways. We had to take off the front door of the house to get the damn thing out, and then, at 2:00 in the morning, we had to force it into the apartment. We had to remove the apartment door now, but the spikes in the hinges were all rusted and we had to POUND at them with different objects. And this guy was calm every moment of the day. At this point he merely said, “Geez, why is it always the very last thing that gives you all the trouble?” If it were me, I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs, “God! What have I done to you, huh? Because it sure does feel like you’re torturing me.” I would have pounded my fist and stamped my foot like a very angry rabbit.
But this man, my mover Henry, was as stoic as if he were sunning on a lily pad. And I realized that my twelve hours with this man was a blessing, that he’d been placed before me so that I may study character in action. He existed as a real human being, not a stereotype or cliché. To study him is to study life, and to infuse my characters with qualities like his—like patience—brings dimension to a character that might have only existed to service the plot.
Look around you. Study everyone. If you’ve walked out the door you’ve entered the classroom.
Sorry I haven’t been around for the past couple weeks…I’ve been moving and I’ve had no room in my life to do anything but work, move and write. At least I’ve been writing, thank God.