Crafting characters that work


I don’t plot much, but develop my characters and treat them like wind-up toys: I turn the key and watch what they do in the context of the framework. They never get far off course, because, in my mind, I have a Sandman Sims ready to yank them back onstage.

That’s not to say my characters are carbon copies of people I know. At best, they are flawed patchwork quilts of personality. I think this helps my reader relate to them more easily. I’m a big believer in the scripture “no one is good but the Father.” Even my “good” characters have issues, because even “good” people have problems and weaknesses they turn to in the face of those problems.

A screenwriting friend was working on a project where a contributing author pressed hard for a specific plot point. The main character, a grossly overweight man, came home to find his erstwhile girlfriend cheating on him with two other men. When the other writers urged her to reconsider that part of the plot, she would not hear of it. Why? The scenario happened to a friend of hers.

Art imitates life; this is true. But, whether it actually happened or not, the audience might not care. If you’re writing a book, screenplay, play, or television show, you’re selling the audience on a product. They won’t buy it if your characters can’t sell it. The key issue was betrayal, and it could have been played a dozen different ways. The three-way was very unnecessary.

However, I also believe this: if you create characters the audience falls in love with, you can get away with pretty much anything. I read the project, and while I felt sympathetic for the protagonist, it felt like a sensational scene shoe-horned into the script.

Here’s my philosophy on creating characters: give them a name that means something, a background that defines them, and screw them up somehow so they’re not one-dimensional automons carrying out your will, but they are three-dimensional living, breathing organisms that act out your plot to perfection.

Happy writing!

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