Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole
How well do you know your character? | Solutions |
How well do you know your character?
Think for a moment about the main character in your most recent story. What does this person want out of life? Security? Fame? Wealth? What about the near future, do they want to be married, divorced, have children, get wealthy, buy a house in the burbs? Who has hurt them in the past, and how? What were the big influences in their life? What do they want more than anything? What problems do they have - financial, marital, elderly parents, alcoholic in the family, a father struggling with cross dressing? How do they feel, secure, insecure, inept, comfortable, competent? When they exit the scenes, where are they going - the store, work, to apply for a loan?
If you are struggling to answer most of these questions, then you can probably glimpse your character in a mirror. The character is just another version of you, or someone you know, who you dress up as you go along. Is that bad? As you write, you are supplying the motivation for the character, but the audience never gets a whiff of what the motivation is. As far as the audience is concerned, the character is unmotivated. He just does things, or flounders, with nothing driving him.
General motivation: Give them a life
You may have heard that characters are just a writer's alter ego, or some extension of themselves. That's nice for a first story, but not for writers who create new characters every day. Now is the time to discard that idea. A writer uses experiential methods to understand and guide his character, but he is not the character. The writer knows how he himself would act and feel. He has gone through experiences and he has seen others go through experiences, so he knows how people act. But the character should be a new creation, totally separate from the writer, with different motivations - his own motivations.
For example, maybe you and your mirror character dislike night school. But if you create a real character, he may be driven to improve himself because he wants to impress his friend who is a college graduate, so he can get into the same career field - even if it will take seven years. So he goes to night school. What does that do to the story? He meets a man whosays he can get him into the field much faster, but working for a competitor. Whatever situation your mirror character was in before just got more complicated. Will he respond the same as you to the situation now that he is motivated by friendship, career, time, opportunity, and conflict. Give him a life.
The foregoing was general motivation - those things that are different about each of our lives, like career goals, that make us unique from each other. What about specific motivation - immediate problems, needs and desires. Many characters walk sideways through a story never confronting anything. They cast no shadow because they're not really there - they don't care about anything.
Jerry is a no-talent bum who occasionally makes a half-hearted attempt at stand-up comedy. Each time he tries and fails we go, "Ho, hum." Why? Because Jerry doesn't care if he makes it or not. Give Jerry reasons to succeed, and the audience will care: His Uncle, whom his late father always admired, was good at comedy. Jerry’s father always thought Jerry a bum. They’re about to foreclose on Jerry's house and kick him and his daughter out. Jerry loves comedy - Jerry is motivated and the audience begins to care. Each time he fails, it hurts Jerry and the audience.
Do the problems your antagonist throws at your protagonist really interfere? If the night club owner is the bad guy and he throws Jerry out, does it matter? For the first Jerry, who didn't really care, no. For the second, it matters a lot. Character motivation means everything.
1) Is your character just a different version of you? Divorce him. Withdraw your personality from the character and see what is left of him. Is he a living breathing entity, or just cardboard? Give him a life.
2) When any event happens in the story, you should be able to ask for the character, "What does it mean to me?" If it doesn't have potential impact for the character, then it isn't interfering with character motivation, so has no reason for being there.
3) Raise the stakes. The character may seem unmotivated because the stakes just aren't high enough. The unmotivated Jerry wants to be a stand-up comedian. No one really cares. But if Jerry is doing it for his late father because he wants his father to think highly of him, then it's more important. The stakes go up dramatically if his home is on the line. And if he really loves comedy, the stakes are higher. Want to make the stakes even higher? If he can't make it as a comedian, he sees his only other choice is to go back in the military, leaving his daughter with a relative, and the owner of the comedy club won't give Jerry another chance.
4) How long does it take to make a character who the audience will love or hate, or one they will understand? From the first minute to the first one-hundred-twenty minutes. And this extremely important element often takes most of the story, overshadowing the most important element, the story. I often see scripts with scene after scene present only for characterization. It's obvious that's why they are there, and the story goes nowhere until the character is laboriously developed.
The solution is to make the trials that hammer out the people's character important to the story. If you need to show Jerry's honesty by having him miscount change at the grocery counter, make sure he's buying something that is going to be used in the story so the story continues to move. If he's there to buy chewing gum, who cares? But if he's buying charcoal lighter for an important cookout scene where he accidentally sets the comedy club owner on fire, it helps the story.
5) Strengthen your story by focusing motivation and conflict in the first scenes. For Jerry's story, open the story at the comedy club. His daughter sits at a table with her boyfriend and says she hopes he does well because Jerry has been saying they may lose their house and Jerry will go back in the military and leave her with relatives. Jerry goes on stage and is failing. His daughter is the only one laughing. The owner pulls Jerry off the stage and tells him not to come back. Most of the motivation and plot are set up in that first scene.
6) "Show don't tell," which every writer has heard over and over, doesn't mean thirty pages of character history showing every event that shaped the character. In Jerry's story, the first scene established most of it. In subsequent scenes, things like Jerry's honesty and the impact of his divorce on his daughter are established piece at a time, as needed.