Starting a new script can be one of the most joyous experiences in life. The eagerness to get your idea down on the page can be exciting. And if you think you have a great premise, cracking that laptop open can be down right exhilarating. That is, until you get inevitably stuck and yell out the proverbial, “ruh-roh” ( in your best Scooby-Doo voice). The reasons for this are as varied and confusing as a Rihanna lyric.
For some, this can be an unexpected turn in the plot that has upended your story. For others, it may be the discovery that the initial premise is not strong enough. But usually, the chink in the script’s armor can be ruled down to a struggle to bring one or more characters to life.
So whether you’re “stuck” or want to create more “fleshed” out characters, here are a few quick steps to get you back on track.
- The Basics
Decide your character’s age, race, economic background, current status and profession. Many writers breeze over this step, either thinking it’s not really that important or out of a desire to keep their characters’ age and race open. While keeping in line with this thinking can be a very astute thing to do, deciding what the character looks like in your mind’s eye is often vital to your ability to write the “appropriate” words that will come out of the of one character versus another. For instance, Cookie Lyon may call someone a “trick” but her once romantic rival, Anika would never use such a “ratchet” term.
However, if you still insist on keeping the character’ physical descriptions open, try describing what the characters are wearing. Even Shakespeare knew that you could tell a lot from what the character is wearing and would sometimes refer to it in dialogue. For instance, does your character wear “vintage” or thrift store clothes? Do they sport Prada or JCPenney’s? If you take this kind of step in the beginning, it will make your characters “pop” and make it easier to fill out their world.
I know you maybe ask yourself what does rhythm have to do with writing a character. Think of it this way… how does Kanye West speak versus how Paul McCartney speaks? Does your character have the intense speech pattern of Walter White in “Breaking Bad” or are they more laid back like Omar the in “The Wire?”
Granted, sometimes this is informed by the character status level (i.e. Frasier Crane in “Frasier”) or sometimes a character’s verbal rhythm speaks to the characters internal struggle ( i.e. the earnestness of Lady Edith in “Downton Abbey”). Often times when you can’t hear the characters voice in your head, thinking about status, background or profession can help you as well. This step can also be an opportunity to think about the character’s “need.”
Rhythm can also be present in the character’s walk. Do they strut or stroll? Do they usually sashay or scurry away? Ask yourself about the character’s innate rhythm and you’ll be surprised at how much will spring forth to help you create memorable characters.
- Point Of View
How your character looks at the world is really the most important thing as it will often help you drive your story. Do they see the world in black-and-white like the iconic characters, Archie Bunker and George Jefferson? Are they altruistic? Do they have a chip on the shoulder? All of these qualities can be the engine, pushing you forward through gaps that you may have in plot. Or they can simply be an abundant source from which you will get more interesting and compelling story points. Asking these questions is essential to creating three-dimensional characters with all the nuances of fully realized human emotions and putting them down on the page.
This step can also be where you could explore the character’s “major flaw” or Achilles Heel. What is the one thing that keeps them from achieving their goal? Is it a vice? Or an all consuming desire? For instance, the nineteenth century serial killer, HH Holmes, who reportedly killed over 25 people was a cheapskate. And even though he built a “murder castle,” designed to gas and disfigure his victims, was ultimately “done in” by his penny pinching. His point of view was such that, not only did he kill his victims for profit, but he wanted to do it without breaking his budget.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a character.
When beginning a script, most of us will concentrate mainly on story. And while that is definitely a great place to start, giving equal thought to the characters is just as important. Recently, I watched the series finale of “Downton Abbey” while balling my eyes out. Like so many of my completed favorite shows (I’m blowing a kiss at you, “Lost”), I will miss this fantastic British export and will think of it fondly. And although I know my memory of the events of the series will soon fade, I am certain that I will remember the characters forever. Happy writing!