Peggy Bechko: Better Character Creation

by Peggy Bechko

Thinking about characters? Or just thinking about your story?

Consider the films you’ve seen and the scripts you’ve read, novels too. Whether the story you present is character driven or action driven, the story centers on the characters.

It’s a simple truth many like to forget while they’re debating the virtues of character driven vs. action driven tales.

So, how to make characters better so actors can’t wait to play the parts or book editors can’t wait to have that novel with their publisher’s logo hit the shelf?

Well for one thing, there’s a weakness in film when it comes to female characters. I hear actresses gripe a lot that they don’t find many strong female roles and actually at times look for roles written for men in an attempt to flip them. Remember Ripley in Alien? Point made.

So, how to create good, strong characters for male or female leads? Think of them as individuals first, then man or woman after. These are real, live people you’re creating. They have a past before they hit the screen or pages of a novel and they have a future once the story is told. Their past has shaped who they are now and how they’re going to react within the parameters of the story you’re telling.

And when the story is ended you need to leave the audience/reader with the sense that the character, male or female, is continuing on to something more – walking back into his or her life. The characters you create MUST exist outside of the story world (script or novel) of your creation.

Some writers create biographies for their characters. Some write bits and pieces in the voice of their characters, whatever works to nail down the fact that this is a real person, not a paper cut-out.

Remember, when creating characters, people are people. At times they’re serious, other times they’re funny. They win and they lose. They do dumb things, smart things, pointless things. They’re people.

Even if you’re writing a drama, the characters won’t be serious all the time; there’ll be moments of levity. A comedy? They’re not going to be funny all the time.

Avoid stereotypes. That’s a generalization I know, but think about it. Certain types of scripts lend themselves to certain characteristics, perhaps certain genders. But, generally the writer should be able to flip dialog between genders (unless you’re writing a full out Romance and plainly the heroine would be operating on a specific plain.) But, in the case of Ripley, that part was written for a guy and it was filled by Sigorney Weaver. Food for thought, no?

Here’s the thing. You, the writer, are creating real people. They must have their own motivations, dreams and more born out of their past experiences. Don’t create mindless macho men and bimbos with nothing on their minds but marriage and babies. Mostly neither one of those ring true. There’s no depth and I’m guessing the writer never paused to create a life for that character other than the small frame of time they spend on the written page.

It’s up to the writer to create something original, something unique, not the old, tired “troubled past” so many like to fall back on.

Want an example? Well, I’m not going to give you one. Figure it out for yourself.

And one last thing. Are you introducing characters with physical descriptions? Well, darn it stop. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking novel or script. With a script you’re writing very tightly and you’re using precious lines to describe someone with jet black hair; like that matters onscreen?

Novel? How about some punch. How about introducing with some kind of action whether actual movement or something going on in somebody’s head. The physical description can be tucked in later in bits and pieces.

Who the character is, is much more important than what she or he looks like. Only exception is if appearance is important to the story, you know, like Tyrian the dwarf in Game of Thrones or if a character is black or Latino or… whatever.

The lesson? Dig deep, your characters are real people with real problems and real desires. Let your readers and your audience see them that way.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.