When I wrote my first drama, I was so excited for my agent to read. I had come from comedy, and I felt so confident about my first foray into what I felt was a meaningful character drama. We got on the phone, and I pulled out my notepad, eager for what I was certain to be minimal, surface level notes.
“I can’t tell your characters apart. They’re lacking in depth.”
Needless to say, this feedback was not at all what I was expecting and entirely disheartening. At first, I was reluctant to accept it as valid. I felt like a little kid – I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and drown out these horrible, no good, very bad notes.
I dove back into my script, determined to point out all of the ways in which my characters were, in fact, three-dimensional. And you know what? My agent was right. My characters lacked definition. The were set pieces to showcase my ability to compose compelling banter – and nothing more. Not one to back away from a challenge, I dug back in. This time, I challenged myself to come up with distinctive, defining traits for each character – traits that would inform action and dialogue.
Here’s what I learned: you need to be best friends with each of your characters. If you don’t know them, inside and out, you can’t expect the reader will. Spend time with each character – put yourself in their shoes, ask questions about them, and understand what makes them tick. This is true for your antagonists as well. Someone once told me that “no one is the villain of their own story.” It’s equally important to understand and flesh out your antagonists. After all, SOMETHING happened in his or her life to establish them as the contrarian. What is it?
Before you start your script, let’s dig around and create compelling characters. Here are things to consider:
You’ll inevitably start your story in the middle (or possibly end?) of your character’s life, and it’s so important to understand the key events that have transpired in his or her life leading up to your inciting incident. What are the defining moments of his/her life that have shaped who he/she is today? What is their emotional baggage? Childhood wounds? We all have them – and it’s not a judgement. Our life experiences (especially at a young age) help to shape our personalities and our drives. Flesh out your characters’ backstories to afford them dimension.
Above all, what is the thing your character wants most? What drives him/her? What is the thing that character is inching towards? Perhaps it’s landing a job. Perhaps it’s escaping a life of crime. Perhaps it’s finding true love. I recently heard storytelling described as understanding what a character wants, and then carving out how he or she goes about getting it. Understanding each character’s motivation is key to creating authentic action.
Another way to say this is “What is your character’s personality?” For my personality quiz/type experts, what is his or her Myers-Briggs or enneagram type? Is he super neurotic? Is she extremely stubborn? Is he a hopeless optimist? Is she wonderfully nurturing? What is the first thing that comes to mind about your character’s personality? If your motivation identifies the WHAT, then the defining characteristic determines the HOW. A timid, passive character might go about pursuing a job in a completely different way than one who is calculated and shrewd.
Each character should have a distinct POV about the other characters in your script. Who are their confidantes? Enemies? Identify the key relationships and any accompanying backstory between characters. The more specific you are with motivation, backstory, and relationships, the easier it’s going to be to craft authentic action and dialogue.
This is a personal trick. I believe that none of us is totally transparent. There’s always a part of us we steal. Perhaps out of embarrassment. Perhaps self-preservation. Perhaps out of calculation. There is something we conceal, forcing others to fill in the blanks. Those secrets give us dimension and a bit of mystery. In story-telling, a character’s secret requires the audience to connect the dots on their own, which I find engaging and interesting. What is the thing your character keeps to him/herself? Why? What are the consequences of that secret being known? It can be minor (wet her pants on a class field trip) or major (hidden criminal record). A character’s secret creates a bit of suspense about them.
What is the most important part of character building to you? Was this helpful? Sound off in the comments! AND, if you’re feeling especially snazzy, enter the giveaway below!
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