Characters Count

I spend a great deal of time talking about structure – the principles of it, the necessity of it, and how your story will come to a screeching halt without it.

That being said, kind lords and ladies of the court, you can have executed a story perfectly in terms of structural engineering. Each beat can be laid down precisely where it “should” be, every set up paid off, and that most perfect of all closing images applied.

“Hooray!” you say. “I’m done! Let’s send it out and wait for Hollywood to knock on my door! I’m thinking high sixes against low sevens!”

You might be right. But then, you might have forgotten one of the essentials of great storybuilding: Character.

Characters count. Think on it. Storytelling is, in essence, about the human experience. Storytelling is primal; it is communal. It is about people. Yes, I consider animated projects featuring toys, talking dogs and kitchen utensils to be about people.

People are… well, human.  They make mistakes – some people learn from theirs, some don’t. There are good people,  and there are not-so-good people – and there are those that fall in the land between.

Think about some of the characters who people this years nominated films: A king who stutters. A little girl hellbent on killing a man. A misfit turned mega-millionaire. A psychotic prima ballerina.

What do these characters share in common? They are expressions of duality. The two faces of Janus, up on the screen.

Creating complexity.

In my first draft, the brain dump draft, I don’t worry about too many things other than getting the story out on the page. It’s fast-food writing; construction work, the blue-collar worker bee in me.

Then, it’s time to begin to sift through the story, to find the gems and discard the rest – and to focus on character. Making them real. Interesting. Complex.

Give them warts

External and internal flaws are an excellent way to express contradictions within characters. Consider the duality of Diane Christensen in Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK:

…DIANA CHRISTENSEN, dressed in slacks and blouse, 34, tall, willowy, and with the best ass ever seen on a Vice President in charge of Programming –

And then later, this Aphrodite speaks:


I was married for four years and pretended to be happy and had six years of analysis and pretended to be sane. My husband ran off with his boyfriend, and I had an affair with my analyst. He told me I was the worst lay he had ever had.I can’t tell you how many men have told me what a lousy lay I am. I apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely, and can’t wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom…

Ah. A new archetype. The Frigid Temptress.

I don’t know about you, but Diana Christensen is a character I’m dying to watch, all 149 pages of her.

Steer clear of singular stereotypes

You know the types. The dumb jock. The June Cleaver housewife. Deconstruct these people. Yes, you can have a June Cleaver as a protagonist, but you better damn well give her a heroin habit, a background of an escort. Think of the character of Laura Brown in THE HOURS. A closeted lesbian, her sexual identity a stranger to even herself. The toll her secret takes on her – and her family. The choice she has to make. The pain is exquisite – and so is she.

In THE DARK KNIGHT, Harvey Dent begins as the Golden Boy: noble, courageous, brimming with honor and drop-dead gorgeous… by the end, he’s a psychopath, his perfectly chiseled features made monstrous.

Don’t be afraid to take them to the dark side

I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating. Your characters do not always have be “good”. Good people can do some bad things – and that contradiction is what takes a character from meh to booyah. Let them screw up. Let them hurt someone else. It’s okay. Really. If you write your characters with honest objectivity, if you don’t try to “make” us like them through false action, then we won’t just like them – we’ll love them.

Natalie Portman’s receiving massive kudos for her work in BLACK SWAN, but long before, she was a Lolita-esque tween learning how to assassinate her family’s killers in THE PROFESSIONAL. She was an imperfect angel; she toyed with Leon’s heart – and his soul.

The characters in GONE BABY GONE challenge our most basic notions of right vs. wrong. The decision that Patrick must come to forces us to come to terms with our most core values. Which decision is the right one? Is the legal decision the moral thing to do?

Play opposite day

Place your characters in  situations in which they must act – and have them make the opposite choice. In ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO, two friends on the verge of financial collapse scheme to make a porn film, to sell for profit. It’s no big deal, they’re roomies, they have no feelings for each other – and yet, when they film their porn scene, they fall in love. It’s sweet, poignant and funny as hell.

Characters are like politicians should be. You shouldn’t necessarily always want or need to have them over for a beer. They don’t need to be your friends, nor do they need to be your enemies. What they do need to be is unique. Layered. Brimming with flavors, like a really good pot of soup. You’ve read the recipe. Time to take it up a notch.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

What I am reading/watching: In preparation of tomorrow’s guest blog on the Save the Cat! website, I’ve been breaking down THE ROAD TO PERDITION. A rare treat, to write about this underappreciated film..

A Royal Shout Out: To LA area goddess of all things writing, Debra Eckerling. Deb founded Write On! Online and everything she touches turns gold. She launched a Write On Online Blog Talk radio show. The next show is Wednesday, February 9 at 12 noon PST, and HRH will be a featured guest. Feel free to call in with questions. Follow this link for the number, and instructions on how you may listen online.

About princessscribe

Screenwriter. Creator of things. I love tacos. "Midlife on Fire" Volumes 1 & 2 now available at
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