Creating Compelling Characters

Attitudes

Creating a character usually starts with one defining trait.  It can be a look, an attitude, an emotion or an action.  S/he can be based on someone you know or know of, or the character can be made up from whole cloth.  The goal is to create a character who feels real.

What makes a character feel real? 

The same things that make a person feel genuine and authentic.  In general, people are usually outwardly consistent.  But when you start to dig deeper, you will find inconsistencies and paradox that require more knowledge of a person’s background and experience in order to understand them.

If you continue to probe, you’ll find a complex emotional structure developed over years of upbringing and events that have shaped that person.  If you get to know someone even more deeply, you will come to know his or her personal triumphs and doubts.  All these elements go into making a character seem believable.

Love Your Characters

There is an old adage: you don’t have to like your characters, but you must love them.  Especially your villains.  It’s easy to like your heroes.  They are noble, heroic, brave, courageous and determined.  The villains are more tricky. They can be narcissistic, venal, greedy, murderous, duplicitous or any other combination of reprehensible qualities.  You may not agree with the things you need your villains to do, but as the writer you must understand their reasons for doing what they do and you must allow them to do so.

There are many approaches to developing a character. 

Usually, a character begins with an initial trait.  You see the character or have a broad idea of who you want that person to be.  From there, as you think about your character, it is helpful to observe the people around you for traits that are similar to your character.

How do these people demonstrate those traits?  How do they affect the individual in specific ways?  Sometimes, your character is informed by people you research?  What are the choices they make?  How do others speak about them?  What do people know and not know about them?

The Core of a Character

The core of the character is the set of values that defines that character.  There is no specific set of combinations, but there are some basics.  Every characters has three selves; public, private and hidden.

Public Self

A character’s “public self” is the one s/he allows the world to see.  It is the way they conduct themselves in the world.  It is the narrative about themselves that they tell to others.

Private Self

A character’s “private self” is the one they see when they are alone.  It is what they think of themselves when no one is looking.  It is what they see in the mirror.  And, most importantly, it is how they perceive the world around them and react to those assumptions.  Often in movies, the main character has a less than ideal view of him or herself which at some point needs to be made public so that s/he can face it and change.

Hidden Self

A character’s “hidden self” is the aspects of a character that the character him/herself doesn’t know they need to change.  They don’t know what this is because it is hidden from them.  But you, as the writer, need to understand this need within your character as it is the source of what truly motivates your character to have the drive and need to see his or her actions through to the end of your story.  This is often a deep-seated, emotionally complex need that gets resolved through the changes a character goes through within a story.

Paradox

What makes people human is that, while they are generally predictable, there are not always consistent.  They surprise us, confuse us and change how we see them.  More often than not, these contradictions are driven by a person’s hidden self – their deep-seated emotional triggers and assumptions about what they are perceiving.

These reactions are not conscious choices by characters that can be articulated by them; they are gut responses to events that occur around them.  The key when creating a believable character is to allow for contradictions that don’t negate who the person is but add layers.

For example, someone who is shy might light up and become talkative on a subject he or she loves; someone who is bossy and demanding all the time needs to be cared for and told what to do; someone who is brutal and thuggish might see something that makes him or her weep; or someone may have a secret skill or interest that they acquired long ago that surface unexpectedly.

Believable paradoxes are what make a character fascinating, especially when the paradoxes are in conflict with each other.  When building your character, try to think of who the character is and what might be some unexpected proclivities, like/dislikes or behaviors that would be the extreme opposite of how the usually appear.

Emotions and Point of View

The make characters compelling the need to be “3-dimensional.”  That means that they do more than just serve a function in your plot.  They must be imbued with emotions, values and perspectives specific to who they are.

Emotions deepen a character’s humanity

Emotions are what makes us empathize with people.  We recognize and understand the emotional reactions, and we feel their feelings along with them.

A point of view is how a character sees the world around them. 

It implies a set of attitudes and opinions about themselves, the people they encounter and how they interact with the world.  A character’s point of view is what influences the way s/he react to people and situations.  In comedy in particular, the stronger, more distinct and crazier a character’s point of view, the funnier the character will be.

Finishing Touches

Characters, like people, are very specific in their behaviors and never are two exactly alike.  As a writer, you can make your characters unique and distinct by giving them specific habits and activities to define them.  Anything from gnawing their cuticles when nervous to weeping at the sight of rainbows, if done in a specific and defining way can make a character stand out from all those around him or her.


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