During a recent screenwriting lecture, a student asked me how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear less trite and forced? She felt that in many of the films and books she’d read, some by accomplished authors, this contrasting trait appeared superficial and misplaced and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall work.
Just to rewind for a moment: A typical character comprises of four defining traits, the forth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and generate interest in the character. For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city …
I thought about this for a while and realised that I hadn’t, perhaps, sufficiently emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.
So, if a man keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?
In other words, seek to explain, in a believable way, where his ‘stupidity’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point, or at the midpoint. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen our understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.
Speaking of which, I’d really love to know what bit of backstory fully explains Hannibal Lector’s (the TV series) drive to create macabre meals from human flesh. Perhaps you can write in and let me know.
Tying character traits into specific and significant events of a character’s life through the backstory, especially the fourth contrasting trait, is essential in creating characters that are interesting, yet believable.
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Image: Jukka Zitting