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Compelling Characters and Ugly Babies

It’s kind of funny* that we’ve spent the last three sessions on structure and are just now getting to characters even though characters are the most important aspect of a story. They are not only the proxy through which your audience experiences that wonderful plot you’ve planned out, but also the living, breathing soul of your story.

I am well aware that the actual importance of characters is debatable, as any summer blockbuster will demonstrate. But such blockbusters can get away with a dearth of character development to a certain degree because they’re based upon visual spectacle, so well-rounded characters can take a backseat (Transformers, I’m looking your direction). The audience investment in time is also only around two hours for a feature film, so in terms of screenwriting inspiration we’re going to turn to television.

As I mentioned last time, television is a much broader metaphorical canvass than a feature film, which is why characters are so integral to it. You’re asked to invest 12-24 hours of your precious time a season, and it’s the characters that are hooks that keep bringing you back. Yes, brilliant plots are great and all, but people didn’t watch Breaking Bad for the plot twists; rather to see how Walter would react to them. No one watched Friends or Cheers because they were so funny, rather to see if Ross/ Diane, Sam/ Rachel would finally get together.**

So yeah, a cool conceit/ concept for a show might get people to tune in for the first episode, but it’s the compelling characters that bring them back again and again. And because reading a novel is such a higher time commitment for the audience than a movie, we’re going to model our concept of characters off of this.

So what makes a compelling character? There are endless theories, books, classes and gurus out there, but honestly, no one knows the exact formula.*** But a good character has to be the product of actual care and creativity, and when you try and cynically manufacture one, you end up with something like Poochie.

That’s not to say I think all characters need to spring fully formed from your head like Athena or anything, only that you need to put the thought and care into them that you expect from your audience when they’re reading your story.

Unfortunately, after putting all that time and energy into creating our characters, we authors start to consider them like our children. We think they’re the epitome of adorability and expect everyone else to feel the same. The problem is, a lot of authors have ugly babies and it’s only when we put them in the beauty contest of the publishing world that we realize this fact. It would save everyone a lot of time and heartache if we could objectively recognize our own baby’s ugliness or beauty, but since we can’t, here’s a checklist of things to look for to see if your child is indeed attractive. And, to stay on the baby theme, C is not just for cookie, but for compelling character…

Conflict: Conflict is the integral ingredient to all drama, so a compelling character needs conflict like a fish needs water. This can take the form of External, Internal, and if you’re really lucky, Interpersonal over the course of your story, but make sure to note how your character is in conflict with your premise or general conceit. How do their unique personal traits put them in opposition to their goals to create conflict over the course of the story?

In the case of Breaking Bad, Walter is a high school teacher that suddenly has to navigate the criminal underworld. He’s woefully ill-prepared for this, so boom, you have your external conflict in spades there alone. Yet his ego won’t ever let him be happy with what he has and drives him for more, no matter the consequences, creating his compelling internal conflict as well as interpersonal conflict with his family.

Comprehensibility: I’ve brought up Snyder’s Save the Cat numerous times now, and it’s great for structure, but the title comes from the moment he believes should occur in every story when the protagonist establishes empathy with the audience by doing something early on to endear him/herself to us. In early films this could literally be saving a cat from a tree, but can also take many other forms. Just so long as the audience thinks to themselves “I like this guy and want to see what he’s up to.”

It should be noted that empathy differs from sympathy in that it’s more about UNDERSTANDING the character rather than feeling sorry for him or her. Hell, compelling characters can be downright unlikable, as is the case of Frank Underwood in House of Cards (US) where I swear they throw down the gauntlet at Save the Cat by killing the dog. Yes, that’s a horrible thing to do, but we understand why Frank does what he does, and it sets the tone for his character perfectly. You understand and comprehend his point of view, deplorable or not.

Consistent: So once you have your character’s conceptual conflict down as well as comprehending him/her, you better damn well be consistent in their portrayal. If they start acting outside the parameters you set for them without an understandable reason why, the readers are going to cry foul. Usually because when the character breaks with his/ her standard modus operandi it’s because the author NEEDS the character to do something specific to serve the plot. Audiences can smell this lazy writing a mile away, so avoid it like the plague. Although all characters serve the plot to a certain degree, when you come to a situation where you NEED the character to do X when they usually do Y, sit down and figure out way and a why for how this is consistent to their character.

As much as I love The Wire, I think the fifth season is complete crap, mainly because the cops started acting outside of their previously established personalities so the writers could bring in the whole newspaper conceit. I know this is my opinion and many might not agree, but I think this really weakened what was probably one of the best shows on TV. Yet I slogged through that entire season, mainly to see how everything turned out for the kids from season four, which just goes to show what some compelling characters will do for you.

Choice: There’s a reason why structurally the Break to Act II involves the protagonist taking WILLFUL ACTION to break away from his/ her preexisting life, and why the Break to Act III is all about him/ her applying the lessons learned over the course of the journey to solve the initial problem, again through WILLFUL ACTION. Because the second component to great drama is choice, and nothing is worse than a passive protagonist that is swept along by the event of the story.

The protagonist needs to drive the action at every available opportunity, usually by choosing between two equally good or bad options. Because if the answer is obvious to the audience, then that takes the dilemma out of the situation, thus diminishing the drama. If everything is firing on all cylinders, a compelling character makes plans that then go awry in the execution, thus forcing the character to find a new solution. So in this sense s/he is reacting to the world around them, but at the same time influencing the events through willful action, which is actualized by the character making choices.

Change/d: I have spent hours upon hours arguing if a character arc is necessary for a compelling character, and I still stand by my position that this is not always the case.**** That’s because I believe when most people, especially in film, discuss character arc they believe the character should end up 180 degrees different from who they were at the start of the story. This is not the case, but I do also maintain that a compelling character should be changed in some way by the events of the story. What I’m getting at here is that every author expects some sort of emotional reaction from the audience, for them to leave this shared experience affected in some way. And if the characters are the proxy for the audience, the window through which they view the world the author created, then it stands to reason the character should learn something as well. It can be small or indeed the 180 degree difference of the traditional character arc, but the author should be well aware from the onset how this specific story is going to change this specific character.

I mention “from the onset” here because we should still be at the conceptual level in terms of characters. There’s a lot more that goes into making a compelling character, and I employ extensive back stories and actually taking personality tests as my major characters before I start page one of the rough draft. But long before these characters grow up enough to warrant this sort of effort, I make sure they fit all the previous C-themed criteria to make sure they’re worth my invested energy.

If they don’t pass my checklist and I realize that indeed my baby is ugly, I either put them under the knife and do some metaphoric plastic surgery to ensure they’re gorgeous when I show them to the rest of the world, or I abandon them in the wilderness like a Spartan. Because life’s too short to spend with ugly babies.

And, you know, because they’re not real.


* Not exactly ha-ha funny, but more like someone on their way to hospital getting run over by an ambulance funny.

** At least that’s how I remember both romantic entanglements. But I should also point out that I can probably count the number of Cheers and Friends episodes I watched on one hand.

*** I invoke Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity as to what makes a good character: “I know it when I see it.”

**** Howard’s original conception of Conan the Barbarian is still one of my favorite characters ever, and he does not change one iota over the course of his adventures. The same could be argued about any Eastwood character throughout the 60-70’s, and he was pretty compelling. And I think we can all agree his work in Paint Your Wagon was by far his best in this time period.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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