Every screenwriter knows that characters are composites of humans. Movie characters are essentially reflections of people with all the boring bits removed. Therefore it’s important to add layers and textures to them.
Of course, you can’t stuff too many of these traits into your characters, because your audience will get confused. However, try to make them three dimensional.
A good guy isn’t absolutely bad, just mainly so, even Hannibal Lecter. Mr Lecter’s positive aspects include being a mentor to Clarisse Starling and helping her face her demons. Here are some techniques to add body to your characters.
Here are some handy tips to elevate your characters and make your screenwriting shine:
If they’re not hanging off a cliff, give them a moral dilemma. Are they forced to decide between to equally unattractive options such as killing someone to save a loved one or transcending their religious beliefs? Raise the stakes to keep us interested.
Despite sounding contradictory to this post, putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations makes your audience identify with them more closely. After all, the main character in Die Hard wasn’t called Titus Andronicus or Mister Powerful. He was John McClane who could easily be your neighbor. A simple name makes him more accessibly as the Everyman.
Everyone has a weakness because we are human. Be it kryptonite or a fear of the dark. How about making that character confess this flaw, or better yet, is forced to confess, confront and overcome it? How courageous is that? That is how we grow as people. The Gods in ancient mythology preached humility to help us overcome our hubris.
Think of those fighters putting themselves in danger for the greater good. Consider those warriors fighting for a just cause such as freedom. This is often accompanied by an intense physical and emotional ordeal. These characters are side, stoic visionaries who see the big picture.
Get your character to accept/love themselves or simply accept the imperfections of a situation, themselves or someone else. Such situations help us mature and accept our limitations. Many self-help books preach to either accept a situation or walk away if we can’t change it. If your main character walks away, you don’t have much of a movie left.
As stated earlier, even the most evil of characters have redeeming qualities. This could be as simple as helping a disabled person cross the street, a gangster supporting their local theater company, caring for a pet, visiting their elderly parents or donating to a charity. Okay, you don’t need to get that cheesy, but an act of kindness makes your villain more human and adds character dimension.
OBSESSIONS, QUIRKS, ECCENTRICITIES
I like this the most because you can do so much with it. Give your gangster a lisp, La Tourette’s, a weak bladder or a rash. Avoid the criminal enjoying fine art or other well trodden cliches. Make them fun, playful, generous and endearing. Even Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets” occasionally let up from his miserable persona. Give them intelligence, wisdom and a sense of humour. Even evil characters can make us empathize with them and teach us something.
DEEPLY HELD BELIEFS/ VALUES
Even Austin Powers held on to his mojo at all costs, because it defined him. He made his own way in the world and defied convention. Consider the fish out of water stories like “Forrest Gump” about an ostracized person seeking acceptance. Give them higher spiritual or social values to add substance to their character.
Most bad characters have a side kick or best buddy to which they display unwavering loyalty. The friendship is genuine and rings true with the audience. If they have at least one friend, a character can’t be all bad.
We all empathize with characters who feel pain and keep it hidden. The Buddhists believe that pain as an essential component of self discovery and growth, while Christians believe it is part of judgement. Perhaps they have a shameful secret? Perhaps the past is too painful to discuss? Are they humble? Do they have a moral dilemma? Do they have an addiction?
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