Stories are about characters. Whether it is animals that represent morals, like in the good old fables or multi-dimensional, colorful, fascinating people, characters make stories come true. So when we write for film and TV, we need to be careful and respectful of them in order to create real, engaging characters that our audience can relate to.
Achieving good character development takes time and practice, but here are some things to get you started in creating great characters.
1. Creating solid character backgrounds
We all have a background, like it or not. There are things from our past, our families, culture, and personalities that define us and the way we act and react to situations, and fictional characters should do too. The difference is, it is you as the writer who gets to create them. Deciding what features of the character to create or focus on depends on every writer. Some prefer to simply outline the character’s background and their most important personality traits. These are some things that I consider a must:
Inner life: Name, gender, race, social class, family background.
Experience and learning: Level of education, skills, and abilities, sexuality, acquired family (spouse, kids, in-laws).
The character today: Age, job, friends and enemies, looks, hobbies, likes and dislikes
The way they see the world: Belief system, personality, sense of humor, hopes and dreams
Creating characters is also about giving them a voice. The way we express ourselves, tells a lot about us. A person that is respectful and courteous will have very different life experiences from someone who is rude and constantly cursing. The people around them will see them differently, include them in different social activities, and generate a different perspective, in general. One will probably be more successful in a corporate environment, while the other might struggle to build interpersonal relationships.
The dialogues we write need to cater to the people we are creating. This should help reinforce the background we have established for them. The way we talk differs based on our education, cultural background, knowledge of things, even our profession.
If you want to create real, believable dialogue, you need to LISTEN. This is my best advice when creating dialogue, listen to the people around you, listen (really listen) to the characters from the movies and shows you enjoy and, if you can, listen to people who are similar to your character.
I once had a client shadow her dentist for a week and she was thrilled with the results. Knowing almost nothing about the human mouth or how to take care of it, she managed to create a character that truly spoke like a dentist, without unnecessary medical slang or assumptions that weren’t accurate.
3. Creating characters who change
Change is interesting and the ability to change even more so. Your characters need to have that ability, even if they decide to change or not. If you think of fascinating characters in film, you’ll notice that change is one big thing they have in common. Think about Shrek, a moody ogre that wants nothing to do with anyone else but ends up fighting for the princess he fell in love with. What makes him interesting is that falling in love with the princess and fighting for her is the last thing we would expect him to do (granted, it’s a fairy tale so we do expect it, but you get my point).
Change can be induced by many factors. Growing up, learning new information, or simply realizing that you were wrong, whatever it is, it must be related to the background we created for the character. A well-educated character is more prone to change his ways after learning something new. On the other hand, a more emotionally driven character will be more likely to change after going through something hurtful.
Note that not all characters change. Some characters simply fight against change constantly and this works too because they are still affected by change. The bottom line is that static characters are not interesting characters, so the more dynamic they are, the better.
Character development is an art, and nailing it requires time and practice. Whatever stage your writing career is at, applying these techniques will eventually get you there.
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