Peggy Bechko: Cornering Your Character


by Peggy Behcko

We’re writers. We tend to fall in love with our character. They become our buddies and we’re loath to hurt them or cause them extreme difficulty.

And yet that’s exactly what we have to do in order to produce a fantastic script or novel. You have to be downright mean, forcing your favored character into a corner with no obvious way out and very little wiggle room.

Those who read your novels or watch the movie resulting from your script have to see a character with a spine, convictions, and unique personality to cheer for. That’s what they’re there for. That’s why they read and watch movies.

Characters who don’t have a hook, who aren’t intriguing and able to face tough challenges and make forceful decisions are going to be like limp noodles – they’ll just lie there. And your readers and watchers will walk away.

So, what to do.

Make sure something that matters is at stake, then make sure there’s no easy way out so your character has to make a real choice and he has to act on that choice without any dilly-dallying. Here’s where you’re creating tension and that carries your story forward on a wave of anticipation.

Especially if you’ve made those choices difficult and not simply the choosing one lesser evil over another. Find every way you can to make it hard.

What if that character can either save a planet or save the one he loves?

What if an attorney is defending an accused serial killer he finds is truly guilty and what if that killer is his best friend from high school?

What if she has always wanted to explore the stars and gets the opportunity but has a family? Can she go? At what cost? What if she finds out the experiments in flight are the ones that will save the life of her daughter on earth – and that it is a one way trip?

Think about the questions that many must face in life – WHEN does the end justify the means? When is killing the innocent justified? Was ‘Spock’ right and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Can you kill a friend to save a city? Can you NOT kill a friend when a city will die if you don’t?

Hard choices. Slippery slopes. That’s what it’s all about. Put a ramrod in your character’s spine and get him or her out there. Make your readers and watchers ask, “how’s he/she going to get out of this one?” and then dig deep for the answers to those questions and find a way.

Pat your character on the shoulder, tell him or her you’re sorry, then throw them into the maelstrom. Emotional, physical, mental or all three – even better all three. Throw the worst possible at them and see what comes out the other side.