Writing compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a must. A plot without such characters to drive it is unconvincing.
There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating compelling characters – from lengthy and detailed backstories, to charting their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.
Call me lazy, but I have always found such an approach demotivating.
Of course, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in an understanding of who the character is. But do we really need to know about his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?
My experience has been that brooding too long and too deeply over the background of the characters may block the writing of a story. I tend to get lost in the details. Indeed, excessive detail, which initially seems like a beacon that sheds light on the story, often freezes me in its glare like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
“Compelling characters are obsessed with winning their stated goal, but are tormented by inner wounds and secrets.”
The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planning them is impossible.
My approach, therefore, is to learn as much about the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing.
In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way. To which I’ll add, we also need to know what inner obstacle or secret may hold the character back.
“Compelling characters drive the plot.”
Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.
Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it.
Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it.
Not only does obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants and needs are what drive the tale forward.
Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.
You get the idea.
Which brings me back to my opening remarks: What must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?
I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. Additionally, I need to know what wound or secret she harbours. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing internal and external obstacles in the path of that desire.
Compelling characters are driven by obsessive desires, struggle against formidable opponents and harbour deep wounds and secrets.
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