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How To Write Great Characters

It’s oft-said that it’s *all* about characters, so one thing Bang2writers ask me about over and over again is “how” to write a “great character”.

Sorry, but there is no actual *way*. Lots of people advocate various techniques… But most are a variation on that fabled notion of “getting inside a character’s head”. Character questionnaires, talking to/visiting the very people you want to write about and what Dom Carver calls “method writing” are a good start in terms of representing one’s characters… but that’s all they are: a START. I don’t think “getting in the character’s head” is even HALF of the game, but more of that in a sec.

In the meantime, here are some recommendations I make to Bang2writers struggling with their characters:

No such thing. One of the reasons there is no specific “way” to write a great character, is because there is no such thing as a universally “great” one. Though some are more popular than others, ask a room of people who their favourite is and there is a strong chance every one of them will be different. That’s obvious stuff. Yet what is not so obvious is how to create *a* character that “resonates” with someone, anyone – because writers are so busy chasing after that mythical notion of THE GREAT CHARACTER EVERYONE LOVES. Let this restrictive element go and suddenly you have the freedom to explore things you may not have conceived before.

If someone does not like your character, that is not a failure. Of course we want everyone to love our characters. They’re our BABIES. But if someone HATES your character? STILL A SCORE. Any emotion is better than none. That’s why, to me, even T2’s version of Sarah Connor is a big SUCCESS – I might not like her, but what’s that got to do with anything? I’ve NOTICED HER. Kudos to Jimmy C.

Contradictory feedback on characters happens. Deal with it. Because everyone’s idea of what makes a “good” character is different, be prepared for contradictory feedback. Here’s some I got recently:

[The character] is a strong enough personality to participate in the narrative, but not so strong the audience cannot imagine THEMSELVES in her place, allowing them to identify with her… Subtle and clever.

Whilst [the character] has an interesting arc, I didn’t feel suitably “close” enough to her to be able to identify with her properly.

Who’s right? Both of them, neither of them… I have to ask MYSELF what I was trying to achieve with that character and base my decision on THAT, not rely on what *someone else* says… That way madness lies.

Great characters need great stories. Whilst many people say it’s “all” about the characters, I don’t actually believe this. Story and character are a symbiotic relationship; you can’t have one without the other. And I’m not sure a GREAT character (whatever that is) can be borne out of an underdeveloped story. So if a Bang2writer is struggling with their characters (for whatever reason), I often recommend they look to their story FIRST – is it “wanting” in some way? Is that *why* this character will not fall into line? It’s surprising how many writers go round the houses trying to fix characters when it’s the story those characters are within that needs fixing… You wouldn’t simply put buckets down to catch the water from a leaky roof and forget about it; you’d fix the roof, wouldn’t you?


Going back to that notion then of “getting in the character’s head” and it not being the full story… Working with writers over the years, I’ve noticed a reluctance from many to really pin down WHY they want to conceive the stories and characters they want to write about. In fact, they’ll often do anything BUT that, whether it’s obsess over dialogue and format or what a character has had for breakfast.

Yet knowing WHY you write the stories and characters you do is often KEY to breaking open those very characters those same writers want to “get in the heads of”. The reason for this is very simple: your characters are essentially YOU. They cannot exist without you. They are the ultimate parasites. They are based on your own thoughts and experiences – how can they not? – and you REPRESENT those characters according to the agenda (or “point”) your STORY has, which will also be based on your own thoughts and experiences. Alan writes a great post here about it, in fact.

In essence then, the “head” you need to get into is not the characters’ so much, but YOUR OWN – and without understanding exactly why you’ve chosen *this* character and *this* story, I would venture you could be severely limiting your ability to “get into the character’s head” anyway. All the character questionnaires and whatnot in the world is unlikely to help when a producer asks you *that* question they ask so often:

“Why this story?”

I’ve seen so many writers falter with that question or a variation of it. As a result meetings go awry and writers lose opportunities they may otherwise have been able to grab with both hands. It’s a mega shame too, since these meetings often take place months or even YEARS after those writers started the script.

Stories are generally about journeys. Journeys can take absolutely ANY road. As a result, I would venture we as writers need to understand where we’ve come from, where are we are now and where we’re going as it has a knock-on effect on our writing. If we haven’t a clue WHY we have chosen a particular story and the characters within it, then it’s like guiding our characters in the dark with a blind fold on… We’re lost before we start.

So next time, when you’re tempted to really try and get in your character’s head, think of your own first. Do YOU know why you’ve chosen this story? Do you know what its purpose is, how your character represents that, who it would appeal to and WHY it deserves to exist *more* than others like it in the pile? Because if you don’t, no one else will. Once you’ve nailed all that down, you can fill in as many character questionnaires as you like…. Go!

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