How to Create Compelling Characters

Take a second to stop and think about some of your favorite movies of all time.

Done? Now think about why those movies are your favorites. Now there may be a few movies you like solely for the special effects, or the cinematography was really beautiful or perhaps  the message really struck a chord with you. But I’d say the chances are high that if you really were honest with yourself, that it was that film’s charterers that made it memorable to you.

We’re human beings and as such we have a hard time associating ourselves with a fabled quest, or a car chase scene. No, we identify with other human beings. We invest ourselves into the charterers we see onscreen. We learn with them. Suffer by their side. Feel their pain.

And if we end up caring for them?

Then we too will go to great lengths to see them reach their goals. Even if it requires us to make several return visits to the theater over the span of several years while forcing ourselves to consume overpriced popcorn.

There’s no other way around it. If you want to write a great script, you’ll have to write great characters.

What makes a great character?

Every character needs a goal. And here’s the secret.

What it is isn’t really that important. 

Finding true love. Avenging the murder of a friend. Making money. Just becoming a good person. Pick one. As far as your character is concerned it really doesn’t matter.

But how your character reaches that goal makes all the difference in the world.

It is the definition of character. Think of a middle aged man in a nice suit walking down the street to work who notices a woman being assaulted by a group of men down a dark alley. We really don’t know this guy yet. He doesn’t even have a name. But there is no doubt this woman is in trouble. Her safety is now his goal and how he deals with this situation will tell us far more about him than the style of clothes he wears or the 9 – 5 he holds down.

Let’s say he just walks on by pretending not to notice anything wrong at all. Puts his head in the sand you could say. Then our man obviously has a very weak character. Maybe he walks past but immediately calls 911. Then he might be like most of us, just an average character. What if he decided to join in? Then he is a truly despicable character.

But let’s say he stops what he’s doing. Yells at the attackers to leave her alone. Better yet he charges them. And they kick his ass. Our poor man is a brave, but weak character. Yet he’s still a hero.

Or let’s say he charges the attackers and kicks their asses with karate chops and high flying kicks. Maybe he’s an MMA expert and knocks them all out cold. Or better yet resourceful, as he uses the objects in the alley, mostly trash, to beat up the other men and save the woman. Now he’s an action hero. We learned far more about this man in 30 seconds than most other movies could do in 30 minutes.

What about that woman’ and her character? Doe she cry uncontrollably from her recent trauma? Or help out our hero mid-fight? Chase down the attackers? Or offer to take him out on a dinner date to show her appreciation?

The obstacles your character faces to reach their goal and the choices they make in dealing with them have the added bonus of making up the majority of your movie. As long as they are striving towards that goal, successful or not, you’ll find yourself on the right track when it comes to structuring your plot. If your characters ever deviate from trying to achieve that goal then you are writing towards a dead end. Stay on target!

Now go back and think about the main character from your favorite movie. What actions in the film define their character?

Maybe you thought of James Bond who solves all his problems with efficient deadly force. But also with style.

Or Indiana Jones who isn’t afraid to get dirty, take a punch, and go to daredevil lengths to save historical treasures. Smirking all the way.

Clarice Starling from the Silence of the Lambs is widely regarded as one of the top heroines of all time. She isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with Hannibal Lecter, embraces her feelings and emotions instead of shying away from them, yet can still protect herself when in danger.

Remember. Actions don’t just speak louder than words. They shout. 

An Achilles Heel

Nobody’s perfect.

Even your characters.

Besides a goal to reach that exposes character, everybody needs a Achilles Heel. The Greeks knew this well and so  filled their mythical heros with flaws. As an infant Achilles was dunked in the river of the dead, the River of Styx, by his mother to make him immortal. And so all of him was. Except for his one ankle which his mother had to hold onto in the river to keep him from being carried away. Achilles grew up to become one of the greatest warriors in ancient Greece but was finally killed in battle from an arrow wound to his heel. Think of Icarus who was impatient and flew too close to the sun.  King Midas was so greedy for gold that he died from starvation when all his food turned to gold when he tried to eat it.

Your characters need flaws as well for two simple reasons.

1. “Perfect” characters are boring: I’ve read a lot of scripts where the main character is untouchably perfect. They never miss a shot, always dodge every explosion, get out of every jam instantly, make a smart ass quip ready for every moment and I’m sure have perfectly straight white teeth. I’m sure those writers thought their heroes were the coolest characters ever as they typed them out behind Cheshire Cat smiles.

But they are so boring.

A character like that is never in danger. Never in trouble. Impressive obstacles you put in their way are mere speed bumps for their endless encyclopedia of skills and talents. Usually the scripts they’re in are nothing more than vehicles for them to show off how bad ass they are. Nothing more than 120 pages of self gratification. And who wants to see that? Even worse than boring, these characters often border on annoying as I usually end up rooting for the bad guys to finally put Mr. Perfect down and bring him a peg or two closer to Earth. Just to see if it can be done.

2. Flaws humanize like nothing else: If you want your character to seem real then don’t be afraid to beat them up a little. As I said earlier, nobody’s perfect. As human beings we often define ourselves by our mistakes. Your characters should be no different.different. For example, I’ve never rescued a princess. Never defeated an alien invasion. Never even ran for president. Yet……

But I’ve been dumped by an ex and been hurt by it. I’ve failed many tests. I’m a procrastinator and notoriously, chronically, late. I’m an awful speller. I doubt my parenting skills. I’m afraid of dying.

If your characters have been there too then your audience will instantly connect with them because they’ve walked in those shoes a thousand times. On top of that a good flaw can often be used as an additional obstacle to make it even more difficult for your characters to reach their goals and develop them even more.

Confucuiusquote

Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films loses all self control when somebody calls him chicken which constantly gets him into troublesome situations. Indiana Jones goes on adventures in jungle temples full of cobwebs, skeletons and traps, but he is deathly afraid of the snakes he always encounters. Tony Stark is so cocky and confident in his abilities that he unwittingly causes most of the challenges he faces in his life. Even Superman has his kryptonite.

Can’t think of a flaw that fits? Well there’s tons of ways to approach and include flaws in your characters.

A Medical condition

Crippling finances

Constant bad luck

Death of a loved one

Cocky arrogance

A phobia

Bad habit like biting nails

An addiction

Quick temper

Trust issues

Loyal to a fault

Fired from a job

OCD

Carries a social stigma

Selfish

Problems with authority

Thrifty to an extreme

Of course there’s more to a writing great characters than just throwing challenges their way to solve and giving them a flaw. What they say and how they say it has a lot to do with building character as well. And don’t even get me started on names. But if you can identify these things first you are well on your way to creating memorable characters your audience will grow to love and root for. But most importantly, remember.

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