People are more than the way they look, act or seem. We all *know* this. So why don’t spec screenplays and novels reflect it?
I don’t believe in creating character profiles, or questionnaires. I don’t care what your character had for breakfast, went to school or even where they work. Those are distractions. I want to know WHO your characters are emotionally, psychologically, philosophically. Sure, what they eat (or not), where they were schooled and what they do for a living CAN be part of that, but it shouldn’t stand for the whole.
Good characterisation is layered and complicated – y’know, like REAL people. This is why good characterisation is the hard bit of writing. Yet over the years I’ve been working with writers, I’ve found many will too often plump for the first character that comes into their mind and then add all those distractions on top for decoration.
To write great characters, I believe writers really need to explore their OWN motivations for choosing that character in the first place … Or even whether that character is BEST FOR THE STORY. So, here are my top 9 tips on how to bring your characters to life:
9) Don’t get **too** hung up on the visual.
In screenwriting in particular, the slightly more seasoned spec writer *knows* it’s a visual medium, so starts attributing physical artefacts to characters to signify who they are. This usually means clothes – or as Julie Gray calls it, a “Laundry List” of character introductions – but may also be the way they wear their hair, do their make up or whether they have certain physical attributes (ie. big breasts. Yes, you’ve guessed it, female characters fare worst of all for this).
Yet even in novel writing, writers can rely far too much on clothes to “define” a character. Whilst what we choose to wear CAN reflect who we are and CAN form a non-verbal communication of some kind, the fact is too many writers use this as a lazy shortcut on its own. If you want to use clothes in your novel – and I will admit to doing so; my characters so far have been women and girls interested in fashion, as will my readers be – then do it IN ADDITION TO other factors, not *instead of*.
So, yes, by all means be visual. But don’t make clothes stand alone to say *who* your characters are. Saying a character wears “red patent high heels” does not really say that much about her personality anyway. Contrast:
Katie totters in on her red patent high heels like a little girl in her Mum’s shoes.
Bored, Katie clicks her red patent high heels together: “no place like home”? Fat chance. Sigh.
In other words: showcase that voice, baby! Don’t be bland.
8) Use ALL storytelling devices at your disposal.
Think instead of stuff like literary allusion, reversals, motifs or echoing/foreshadowing. Not sure what these are? Check out Screenwriting Info’s great rundown, or this fab list of literary devices. Pay attention to your arena. It can make all the difference.
7) Get Motivated.
Give each character a motivation of their own from the story, even if they are not driving the narrative: do they get it? Does their motivation change? Why/why not?
Remember, secondary characters’ goals are primarily about helping or hindering the main characters. But this should not be the ONLY thing they do, otherwise, your secondaries end up being cardboard cut-outs.
If you want your secondary characters to feel authentic and real, none of them must realise the story is NOT about them. Forget this at your peril.
6) Avoid Stereotypes.
Seriously. Especially those characters “different” to yourself … Whether that’s on the basis of gender, sexuality, economic status, race, whatever. Oh: and know the difference between stereotype and ARCHETYPE.
5) Avoid cliche at all costs [CLICHE KLAXON].
Talk to people. Read. Use social media to find out what’s going on in the industry. Network. Get peer review. Stage screenplay reads. Go to London Screenwriters Festival, London Book Fair and other events.
In other words: do whatever it takes to keep your finger on the pulse [KLAXON!] and avoid samey stories and characters, or making the same submissions and approaches the same way everyone else is.
BTW, many writers attempt this but are so outlandish they end up with the opposite problem, as they end up too far out. Watch out for that, too.
So: whatever you think of, first? Twist it.
4) Reject politics, expectations and “empowerment” arguments.
You cannot please everyone. This is a fact. Even if you worked on your screenplay or novel for ONE HUNDRED YEARS and you poured your heart and soul into it and tried to plug EVERY SINGLE WAY it could be misconstrued.Why?
‘Cos some ****** WILL come along and tell you it’s:
a) shit and badly written and/or made
b) you are a terrible person for writing it as you *clearly* have not considered others’ *feelings/thoughts/representation/privilege/whatever (*delete as appropriate).
Writing & personal responsibility may be a thing you believe in, or it may not. But end of the day, you can only do what you can do. If you exhibit as much care as you can, at that time? Then you can hold your head up high.
And forget about “empowerment”. This is a red herring. One character or piece of work CANNOT stand for *all* female characters, all black characters or whatever. It is unfair for any critique to insist it does. If we want to change the industry, we need CUMULATIVE BUILD UP. Do your bit. But don’t take the weight of everyone’s expectation on your shoulders.
3.) It’s not “write what you know” …
One of the reasons many writers end up dropping serious characterisation clangers is because they don’t do enough RESEARCH. And I don’t mean the type of research that requires dates and times, but analysis and/or CRITICAL THINKING. Here’s the thing:
Your best writing is done by thinking.
I can’t stress this enough. I’m not saying writers are stupid, far from it; most of the cleverest people I know are writers. But that cleverness doesn’t always make it on the page; instead, readers get reductive thinking … And as writers, we have to wonder WHY this happens. And I think I have the answer:
Too many of us love the actual act of writing too much.
It’s SO EASY to get carried away. You have that great idea and you want to dive straight in. Then you lull yourself into the thought that if you’re writing, everything must be going well. It’s understandable. I have to literally FORCE MYSELF myself sometimes to stop (especially as I have hypergraphia!).
But we must stop. We must let thoughts settle in our minds. We must mull over ALL the possibilities of whatever our work CAN be. Someone said, “there’s two sides to every story.” Uh-oh. No way. There’s a MYRIAD of ways any story can turn out and you need to exhaust every single possible avenue to tell the best story you can. Not only at the beginning either; you must review it as you go along.
(FYI – Of course it’s fine if you’re one of those writers who needs to splurge everything out in one go and then edit. But keep returning to the themes of your work and your OWN motivations for writing it in the first place. For one thing, you may discover you don’t NEED to finish … I know I’ve stopped myself wasting my time on dead duck drafts more than once like this).
2) … But remember it’s not about you.
And here’s the other thing:
You don’t have to agree with a POV to write it.
To really put yourself in a character’s place, you need to go “beyond” what you think. You must write them without judgement. You must reflect on the things real people *like* your character may do without reductive anger (“rapists and murderers are evil”) or the urge to impose infantising pop psychology (“all sex workers must be victims“), even if you feel their actions or choices are not something you would do.
1) DARE to be different.
If you are successful at writing a character authentically, you will find many allies for your work. What’s just as important to remember however is it will also bring you ENEMIES.
Lots of Bang2writers express fear they may offend someone. I think it’s more likely they are afraid of the sting of others’ rejection of their hard work. So those writers play it safe. Why? Well, it’s very common for an audience to impose their OWN issues, feelings and even prejudices on a writer’s work and make all kinds of assumptions about them personally. Some of these assumptions may be false, true, or fall in somewhere in-between.
Whatever. Retrospective analysis of this nature by people who are not the writer or maker is redundant. If someone writes to me and tells me what a bad person I am for writing something for whatever reason, I know it’s not true. Why? Because I know I’ve most likely thought of what that audience member is accusing me of.
An example: my YA novel includes a chapter in which my protagonist has an abortion. Unlike many narratives that deal with teens having an abortion, my character does not regret her decision and neither are there any “big” consequences for it. I did this ON PURPOSE, because I was tired of hearing all about pregnant teens *having* the baby, or being “tainted” by abortion. Where were all the girls’ stories who felt abortion was the RIGHT CHOICE for them?
Feedback for this chapter was overwhelmingly positive, but as expected there was a small but significant contingent of people who accused me of various things; these ranged from “sensationalism” to apparently “encouraging” young women to HAVE abortions, with those people citing anything from “parental concern” through to religious misgivings for their feelings on the matter. A couple even went so far as to say I was a “baby killer” and I should feel shame.
I was expecting this kind of feedback, so I was not overly flustered by it (though it was maddening). There were several people however who wrote me to expressing genuine concern about the fact I was writing about abortion, due to the fact they had had abortions themselves and regretted it.
So instead of ignoring them (as I obviously did with the people who called me a baby killer), I wrote back to these people and thanked them for sharing their stories and saying I was sorry they had had such a negative experience. I did NOT invalidate them and say other people did NOT have negative experiences of abortion, or that my intention was to reflect a different view than theirs. As a result, I entered into rewarding dialogues with a couple of them and they too felt better about reading the book. I think this is key: there is no point pleading “intentions”, because those negative feedback-givers don’t judge you by those, but by what they see in front of them (even if that perception is wrong, misguided or simply different).
So barring those writers who genuinely ARE trolling or clickbaiting (and they do exist), don’t worry too much if people hate your work or your characters. If people love it, then other people have to hate it. Put simply: you’ve succeeded.
Remember it’s principally about authenticity and you can’t go far wrong … As long as you also remember authenticity takes A LOT of consideration and reflection. And hard work.
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