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By Staff · July 25, 2017
By: Britton Perelman
The characters we create must breathe; they must be real. But creating life is no easy task. Too often, our characters are only partially complete, mere shadows of true, breathing people. Thankfully, there are ways we can avoid writing characters who will fall flat with audiences.
Inexperienced storytellers are likely to create characters with lower levels of intelligence as a way of furthering the plot. Dumb characters can stand in for the audience — asking all the important questions and leading other characters to explain intricacies of the plot, whether that be legalese, medical information, or even trivial fact.
But these characters are hollow, and the audience will be able to tell. Instead, make your characters smarter than you and, more importantly, seemingly smarter than the audience. Intelligent characters force your audience members to remain engaged, to stay active to keep up with your protagonist.
Take Jane Villanueva, the protagonist of “Jane the Virgin.” Jane is a smart, driven writer and grad student. Her superior intelligence serves her character well, given the circumstances of her telenovela-like life, and allows her to be the ‘voice of reason,’ for her family and the audience. Or, examine Leslie Knope, the waffle-loving main character in “Parks and Recreation.” Leslie not only knows more about politics than her colleagues, but probably more than most audience members as well. Leslie’s ideas, caused by her determination to further herself (and Pawnee) moves the plot of “Parks and Rec” along season after season.
Most characters can be categorized as being an example of a certain archetype, but typical qualities shouldn’t be the only defining characteristics of our characters. As human beings, we are always more than one thing. It is our complexities that make us interesting, and complexities will make your characters feel more real.
“You’re the Worst,” FX’s comedy about two cynical people who fall for one another, could have fallen prey to this problem if its main characters had been cynical and nothing else. But the leads are full of contradictions and quirks that make them compelling. Jimmy is skeptical about relationships, but constantly falls in love; he is insensitive, but truly cares about this girlfriend and friends. Gretchen is self-sabotaging, but diligent; she is brash, but loyal.
Many superhero narratives create caricatures of “bad guys,” relying on our prior knowledge of the good-guy/bad-guy plot as an excuse for not creating fully-developed villains. But antagonists with redeeming qualities are sympathetic and more relatable, making your story deeper and more complex than the average blockbuster.
Take “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ political drama, which, it could be argued, doesn’t have a villain. All of the main — and even many of the recurring — characters have made decisions and possess qualities that could easily qualify them as the “bad guy.” Even the protagonist, white hat wearing Olivia Pope, (spoilers) has killed people. No character is free from flaw or mistake on “Scandal,” and, in their complexity, we are able to feel compassion for characters at their darkest moments.
Though you, the writer, might have an idea of what a character looks like in your head, leave the physical descriptions out. Your story — when it finally makes it to the screen — will be better for it. Physical descriptions are limiting, not in the writing process, but in the casting process. When an actor is cast as one of your characters, you want them to inhabit the role. Ultimately, they will be the one breathing life into your character, and you don’t want your story to be limited by trivial physical descriptions such as hair color, height, etc.
When Shonda Rhimes created the Dr. Miranda Bailey for her long-running show “Grey’s Anatomy,” the character description called for a tiny woman with blonde curls. Had the casting director stuck to that description, Chandra Wilson wouldn’t have been cast as the inimitable fan favorite.
There is one exception to this rule, and that’s if a physical descriptor is crucial to the story you’re telling. For instance, in 2016’s breakout summer hit “Stranger Things,” it was important for Eleven to have buzz-cut length hair because it functioned in the plot. Similarly, the cast of plane crash survivors in “Lost” called for an Asian couple and a Middle-Eastern man, as their backgrounds played into the overall story arc in certain seasons.
The issue of diversity and representation is justifiably brought up in regards to the entertainment industry. To that end, it’s important to take race into consideration in a meaningful way with your characters, and not simply for diversity’s sake. Making a character Japanese for the sole purpose of parading the fact that you have a Japanese character in your script isn’t the right decision for your story, nor your character.
Instead, use race/gender to breathe life into your characters. Embrace culture in an authentic way. Consider if making a character Latino would give them an interesting or different take on the situation set up in your story. Consider making a character female instead of male, or vice versa – see if it will change the dynamics of the characters in your script.
For example, look at the way Randal’s character functions in the story on NBC’s “This Is Us.” Adopted at birth, Randall becomes the third Pearson triplet, joining his white siblings and parents. Actor Sterling K. Brown recently expressed his feelings on the matter, saying to the Hollywood Reporter, “What I love so much about the show and about the character of Randall is that he’s black on purpose. So many times, for the sake of diversity on network television, there’s going to be a black guy or a Latino guy by happenstance — they just happen to be that. But the fact that he is black and we actually use that to tell the story of a black man being raised by a white family … I enjoy it a great deal.”
Be purposeful in choosing your character’s’ race, ethnicity, and gender, but for the right reasons. Otherwise, you’ll end up with token characters who serve no greater value to your story.
The worst thing you can do is reveal a character to the audience in their entirety. You want there to be mystery. You want to have unknowns. It’s perfectly fine if you, the writer, know everything there is to know about your character — but don’t play all your cards at once.
Maintaining unknown facets of your characters serves an important purpose in constructing character arc. It allows your characters to grow, your audience to be surprised by certain quirks, and you to create full characters. As people, we’re always changing. Upon meeting someone new, we don’t automatically tell them every single detail about ourselves, so why do the same with your characters?
This can function as a source of comedy, as in “Broad City.” It isn’t revealed until the second and third seasons that Abbi has an alibi that only appears when she blacks out and that Ilana speaks Mandarin, respectively.
In dramas, not revealing certain details about your characters can be a way to structure your story. In Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we don’t learn until halfway through the first season that Serena played a huge role in creating the dystopian state, Gilead. But once the audience learns this information, it significantly impacts the way we view her decisions.
As a writer, you want your characters to take on a life of their own. We’ve all heard of writers who preach that their characters are the ones making the decisions, not them. But in order to create characters who do make their own choices, they have to feel real. When your script is finished, your characters should not be characters at all, but real, living people.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the latest thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her writing on her website, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.