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 Making Dull Characters Sparkle

Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor

Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole 

Who do we like? | Solutions | Thoughts on the deeper side of character

Who do we like?

Where do you turn if your character is dull? How much character do you really need? Make the guy eccentric or too unique, and you need a character actor to play him. How much character do you put in to satisfy people?

What gives people charisma? Why do we find some people spell binding? What turns some actors into sex symbols and others into superstars? Why is one person able to sell anyone the Brooklyn Bridge, and another couldn't sell papers on a street corner? Why do we like some people, and not others?

Is it glitziness? Just the superficial image gained from a good looking and well cared for body, great clothes, and a smooth tongue? Glamour, perhaps, from being in the right environment? Money? Power? Good breeding and education? Something charismatic we just can't describe?

Not. There are well bred people we can't stand, people with money and power we wouldn't want to be caught dead around, glamorous people who turn our stomachs when we get to know them, and beautiful people who are rotten to the core. 

We like Charlie Chaplin's Tramp. Why? On Mash, why did we like Radar O’Reilly and Hawkeye Pierce? two totally different and unusual people. Why do people like Steve Erkle? It isn't just people we like who fascinate us: JR Ewing was the character we loved to hate. Or consider the fascinating characters Jack Nicholson plays - vampires and devils with a sexual slant, a military officer, a psychotic stinker, or even a Joker. We want to see a good villain - are they charismatic?

Obviously it helps to be a good speaker, or a good actor, to do well in front of people. Speaking takes movement, surprises, challenge to the listeners to get their involvement, a modulated voice and variety. Acting takes a great deal more. Superficial things may get a character's foot in the mind's door, but after that something has to click. Those things are identifiable personality traits that can be included in characterization.

If the character is a "good guy," there are some traits that are almost required. Good people are people we can depend on, people who can be trusted - generally - but if they are lovable we'll let them get away with being a little untrustworthy as long as everyone knows their "problem." Certain things make us trust people: First of all, they are like us. There are human qualities in them we can relate to. If nothing else, people get to know each other by lighting up a cigarette or talking sports, or having coffee. Second, they are honest, competent, and even authoritative. And they are decent and brave. That doesn't mean that they obey every law, worship God on the right days, and jump into every battle. Everyone has faults, and those who do appear perfect aren't approachable - they're intimidating - so a good guy is better if he has an obvious flaw. 

Normally we're going to like people who are people oriented and have some empathy for other people. If they are reclusive, sociopathic, or totally selfish, we won't like them. We like people who are warm, caring, and giving. However, Dustin Hoffman played two characters who weren't people oriented: an autistic man who was emotionally flat, and a hero with a very negative personality. With the autistic man, we were intrigued by his plight and were sympathetic toward him and his brother. With the hero, we saw through his rough exterior to the goodness inside. 

Some personality traits are more difficult to pin down. If a character or person is genuine, we are more apt to like him. What does genuine mean? Not pretending to be something they are not. Not false, like people who will lead you on or are two-faced. Self-assurance is a trait likable characters often have, but this doesn't always hold true. Attitude is another trait that is difficult to pin down. We like characters with a little attitude, we like them a little rebellious, a little cocky, a little devilish, a little different than the average "normal" person. But push attitude very far and you have a "character," and probably a dislikable one.

There are three things characters need which come directly from the writer. First, the character should be unique. Just enough different from us that he intrigues us. It might be his work, his attitude, his problem, his past, his future, his hobby - something to separate him from the crowd. Second, there should be surprises. If we know the person so well that he is totally predictable, then we're bored. But if he is totally unpredictable, we will hate him, so it's better not to make the surprise his erratic behavior - make it something a little mysterious about him from the first that gets illuminated later. Third, give him a life. If a character has a fully developed life that we get glimpses of, then he is motivated and interesting to us. 

If the character is a bad guy, give him a life, too, and apply many of the above personality traits to him.

Creating character identification 

Is it necessary to write twelve minutes of characterization related drama just to make us connect? Is it essential to have a good looking person or a "personality" in the role? Or are there things that help people connect? 

First we need a few cues that the person is like us. Watch what happens when two strangers who are smokers meet. One lights up a smoke, then the other lights up. They instantly become more approachable because something is "known" about the other - they share something in common - they're "all right." It doesn't take much: petting a lost kitten, smiling compassionately at someone who is not so likable, avoiding something that is dishonest. Some little thing like this will demonstrate that the person is like us, they are "all right." They share with us being in the human condition. 

We don't need a lot of general character development. We will assume that the person is just like the other people in his peer group, and that they are a lot like us. The mind notices things that are different. What we will need is examples of how the character differs from his peers, or how they differ from us. Preferably the peers will be a little shadier than we, and the main character will stand out because he is better than they, and is like us. We will identify much more with him, because now it's us against them and we want him to succeed.

But don't make the character perfect. We're not, and we're intimidated by perfect people. So, instead of giving him a moral problem, like dishonesty, give him a weakness - something to overcome. We will identify with this, because we are all in the same boat. We all have things to overcome. We identify. Once again, we will want the person to succeed. 


1) Push your character as far as you can push in the traits listed above, until they seem unrealistic. Then pull him back until he seems realistic but still vibrant. 

2) If you have reached an impasse in your writing, sometimes the only solution is to shake things up a bit. For example, what do you do if you find it difficult to write strong female characters? If you can only see women as the mothering type or airheads (or can only see men as macho spear chuckers), what do you do? One way to compensate is to write the role using a male character, then change it to a woman. After changing the name, go back and change some of her responses to show more feminine qualities. But after having drawn the character one way, you are unlikely to be able to make more than superficial changes, so you will end up with a strong character of the proper gender.

3) Weak characters can often be strengthened by combining two characters into one. The characterization will blend, yielding a much more colorful character.

4) If creating characters seems an irksome and frustrating process which for all practical purposes prevents you from writing, try just getting right into the story. There is so much background and characterization inherent in writing from scratch that about thirty pages will be dominated by it. Then set those first pages aside and begin again, drawing on them for character and situations. It isn't wasted, you will use most of the material.

5) Another way to get around your own weaknesses is to ask another writer to suggest ideas or even write a character or portions of the story. This way you will get a good story written, but the downside is you learn less about strengthening your writing. 

6) Consult books like Encyclopedia Of Literary Characters, or Oxford Book Of Villains, for patterns. It isn't necessary for a writer to always make totally new and unique characters if the mold already exists, especially for the less significant ones.

Thoughts on the deeper side of character

The characteristics of a character depend on the type of character we are creating. We want to be repelled by some, attracted by some, and want to admire others. Just as we suspend disbelief when we are in a story, I think we also suspend disbelief about the characters and project selected attributes onto them. For example, the actor who plays a doctor or priest is often approached by fans in real life who are caught up in that image and turn to the actor for advice. The characters are an archetype to us. 

Avoid perfect characters

Studies in psychology and marketing have taken a look at credibility. Who do we believe? Who will we listen to? A couple of characteristics stand out. We listen to people who are authoritative (often backed by credentials), and who aren't perfect. Interesting blend. We are put off by perfection. 

There is a religious analogy that closely parallels this idea. It is thought that God is so perfect that he is unapproachable by us. We stand before Him in fear and trembling. Perfection and power blind us to the love and forgiveness that is in Him. But it is thought that Christ presents a way around that. He was fully human and was tempted just like the rest of us. He overcame temptation. But Christ would not point the finger of blame at anyone. In fact, he stood between a stone throwing crowd and a prostitute and requested the person in the crowd who had no sin to cast the first stone. No one was qualified. We all have feet of clay. In Catholicism, priests and saints are also used as intermediaries to represent man before God. We distance ourselves from perfection for safety. We inherently don't like it. Christ was accepting of others. Likewise, we can identify better with the protagonist in a story if he is human and accepting of others. 

So, it is difficult to get people to identify with a character who is "perfect." On the other hand, how imperfect should we make the characters? We also have difficulty liking people who are at the other end of the scale. If they are really different from us, really imperfect, we dislike them. The more different people are, the less we can identify with them. On the other hand, that difference often attracts us to the character.

Authority characters must present themselves as very human, but also have to present as those who have the wisdom that comes from rising above most of the problems that we all face. We have to know that they were human enough to be tempted, but wise enough to get beyond the temptation. We usually don't see the temptations and travails of these characters, but they make statements indicating that they too have been tempted, or that "this" is common. Those are the characters that we trust - they are the archetypes.We can project onto them the role of guide, and for the sake of the story we can believe them.

Another breed of character has come into being that is like authority characters, but more like us. The main character on the TV program Cracker is an example - he is a professional (psychologist) who is going through all the problems that everyone else in the world is facing. He is an extremely smart criminologist who outsmarts serial killers, but he can't fix his own life. Do we identify with him as a person, or as an authority? I think more as a person - he is smart, but not necessarily wise. He doesn't "have it all together."

Speaking of psychologists, the characters on the TV program Frazier are comical because in spite of their knowledge, they haven't risen above anything. Knowledge and experience are two different things.Wisdom comes from experience.

So in creating characters that we can identify with, there are a lot of things to consider. We identify with people who are like us. The more they are like us, the more strongly we identify. If they are different from us, then we have to consider how that difference is going to affect how people identify with the character. Difference is intriguing. Villains are typically evil and like it. But villains who show some humanity can also make the story more interesting. Authority figures must not be too perfect but must not make a big demonstration of their failings. Put a strong good character and a strong evil character in the same movie and you have high concept and people love it. Most other characters must be human, and struggling with being human. It is the human condition in them that we identify with and it fascinates us. Creating good characters is usually a delicate balance.

Also See:

Excursus One: How To Raise Dead Characters

How To Use Motivation To Form Characters And Plot (later)

A Character Motivation Primer

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