Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Five Ways to Make Your Characters Pop

"Seriously, guys: feet are the next big thing."
I've seen a decent number of films this year. Some have characters that are instantly forgettable (as in I've forgotten the protagonist's name by the time the end credits roll) and some have astonishingly witty, clever, and fascinating characters. Whether you're writing a script, short story, or a novel, despite a stunningly original plot concept, you are not guaranteed exciting, relatable, and inspiring characters. In fact, they're hard to write!

Pixar's Andrew Stanton mentions that a prime storytelling commandment is to make the audience care. The best visual effects, sound design, and cinematography in the world won't matter unless your audience feels as though they have a stake in the outcome of the protagonist's journey. We're happy when your protagonist succeeds. We cry when your protagonist fails. We feel alongside the best-written characters. And what a tall order that is! In a feature screenplay, within two hours, you need to introduce your character, throw them into hot water, and make your audience feel so strongly about the outcome that they simply must rush out and tell their friends and family to also go experience your work.

How do you do that?

1. Stakes

"Where is the plot to this film? Tell me!"
Care for the outcome won't amount to a hill of beans unless your protagonist is racing to protect that which she loves at every moment of your story. The first few pages of your screenplay or the first chapter or two of your novel must show us what your character loves and why. In The Social Network, the stakes are established in the very first shot and the very first scene. Erica is the only person who wants to spend time with Mark in a romantic sense. When we see how his status-seeking personality drives people away, that makes her even more precious and rare. So when he loses her, it gives the story the jet fuel that powers the rest of the film. In Star Trek: Beyond, Captain Kirk is faced with the loss of his ship, his crew, and a space station population of millions. Everything and everyone for whom he cares is in direct and immediate danger throughout the film (as it should be in your story - that which the protagonist loves must be under constant threat). And despite it all, when he's tempted with a cushy, sedentary promotion, he turns it down. He realizes that pushing against the frontier is not only what he's good at, but also what the galaxy needs him to do.

2. Uniqueness

"What? The unicorn t-shirt store is closed!?"
Tim Albaugh at UCLA and Hollins University calls this "larger than life." But what does it mean to be larger than life? Your character needs to be the best at something, the worst at something, or both. But he can't be neither. Your character needs a skill that only he can do, by virtue of being who he is. In Central Intelligence, Dwayne Johnson plays Bob Stone, an incredible fighter and CIA agent - arguably the best. But he's also extremely sensitive and his feelings are easily hurt. What a terrific irony! A big tough CIA agent with the soul of a kitten (he wears a unicorn shirt that says "Always be you." Aww). He's one of the most fun characters of the year and it has everything to do with what makes him himself.

3. Desires/Dreams

"We love each other even if this metal step really digs into our butts."
In Beauty and the Beast, Belle sings, "There must be more than this provincial life!" In Willow, Willow Ufgood dreams of being a great sorcerer. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy the wrongly imprisoned inmate dreams of freedom. In The Secret Life of Pets, Max the dog dreams of a happy life in which his owner Katie never leaves and especially never brings home a new dog. What are your character's hopes and dreams? There's a reason why this is one of the first questions we ask of anyone we consider for a significant other. We want to relate to them and to learn what drives them. What's a relatable goal for your protagonist? The first part of your story is about placing us squarely in her mindset. Let us see the world the way that she does.

4. Fear

"We hit pay dirt at the unicorn t-shirt store."
Fear is mythic. Ingrained. Ancient. The prime antagonist, the one we all have in common. It even transcends species. Remember the boggart in Harry Potter? It was a creature that takes the form of whatever terrifies the observer the most. The question is simple: what does your protagonist fear? The answer is not always as easy. But here's a hint: your answer must be a tangible element. Indiana Jones fears snakes, but he actually braves snake pits because there's something he fears more: Nazi dominance. Fear is tied to stakes, as the protagonist will quite likely experience what he fears the most if he fails in his task. In Matt Ross's amazing Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen's character Ben has six children that he educates and raises in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. He fears to lose them to such a degree that he has rehearsed actual scenarios with them to trick and manipulate their way out of almost any situation that could threaten their family unit. What's in common to all fears is the idea of loss. Loss of a loved one, a way of life, health, or a prized object. What does your character describe as freedom? Or as home? It is the fear of loss of whatever or whomever that may be that forces him on his journey.

5. Flaw

"What do you mean, 'No returns on hoodies'?"
Flaws are inborn. We are who we are because of them and because of our struggle to overcome them (or our struggle not to). Flaws lead to misunderstandings and all conflict comes from misunderstandings. Conflict tells us more about character and shoves us deeper into the story. So when I say that flaws are the fundamental drivers of a character-driven story, it's really to ask (as any audience should about your story), "How will this character, out of all others, be the one to accomplish the task laid out before her?" Here's another big clue: ideally, your protagonist should face a challenge that will require her to overcome her flaw in order to win. The best protagonists fall into trouble of their own making as a direct result of their flaw. And the only way to extricate themselves is to overcome said flaw by whatever means necessary. The trick is to not allow your protagonist to realize that all at once. After all, if they become acutely aware of their problem too early, then your story might be over before it ever has a chance to begin. In Taika Waititi's charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, we have a pair of flawed characters: young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a rebellious hooligan, used to being unwanted, who bounces from foster home to foster home. Hector (Sam Neill) is a misanthropic ex-con who's given up on the world. These are two flawed characters who want nothing to do with each other. But pack them up and ship them into the New Zealand wilderness? It's a veritable flaw-fest! They're at each other's throats throughout the ordeal. But you know something? They just might save each other. Ricky's devil-may-care attitude might be just what Hec needs to loosen up, and Hec's serious nature might help Ricky grow into a better man. They need each other, their flaws compliment each other, and their arcs shine bright, even (and especially) in the film's darkest moments.

Ideally, you'll have an idea as to what (or who) your character loves, what makes him unique, what he desires and dreams of, what he fears, and what his flaw is before you begin page one. The more complex your character, the more we'll want to know all about him. And the more we want to know about him, the more of your work we'll want to read, watch, and buy. Write on.


Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at

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