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CHARACTER CREATION


Even though I'm primarily an action and thriller writer, I believe that character is the most important part of any story. But how do you create characters that come alive on the page? The first step is to really know your character - and that's more difficult than it sounds.

You also need to know your character's connection to theme (the overall purpose of the character in the story).

You need to figure out the essence of your character - and boil it down to one line of description. That's going to take time. That one line informs the reader about all of the visual scenes that follow - it gives them a context.

Best thing to do is to make a list of all of the things that make up your character, then find a scene that illustrates those things. Not easy, but this is going to be your big character introduction so you need to spend some time on it. In the Secrets Of Action Screenwriting book I use DIRTY HARRY as an example, in the Visual book I use ROAD WARRIOR, so let's take a look at Bill Murray's character in (the original) GHOSTBUSTERS - Dr. Venkman....

The first thing we see is his office door - with graffiti scrawled on it. This is a guy who is not respected at the University.

Now to Venkman - he's doing a test with a pair of student volunteers. He looks at a card with a symbol on it and a geeky kid and a pretty girl are trying to use psychic abilities to identify the card. Okay - we know what he does at the University - he's not teaching, he's doing research.

When the geeky kid incorrectly identifies the card, Venkman hits a button that gives him an electric shock... But when the pretty girl gets the card wrong, Venkman pretends she got it right and doesn't give her a shock. Venkman not only has an eye for the ladies (will be important later because that's what gets him involved in Sigourney Weaver's fridge problems), but he also doesn't really believe in the research - he's a skeptic. That's the main element of his character - he's the non-believer of the group.

Oh, and he's a little cruel - he keeps shocking the geeky kid for fun.

There's a great moment in this scene where the geeky kid starts actually identifying the cards - and Venkman still tells him he's wrong and gives him a shock. This tells us that he's a complete scammer - even when he gets the right results, he'd rather make time with the girl. He doesn't care about the research, he's in this for himself.

Oh, and the scene is filled with Bill Murray smart-ass lines and after the test is over we get that Bill Murray charming rogue stuff with the girl (he wants to help explore her gift in a more controlled environment, like maybe his place).

We get a whole bunch of information about Venkman in one scene - which sets up everything from his problems with authority (Dickless, the EPA guy) to his woman chasing (Sigourney Weaver) to his get rich quick schemes (the Ghostbusters as a business) to the way he reacts when he's slimed. We get a good idea of how he'll react to the situations in the story from this scene.

CONFLICT INTRODUCTION

Another thing to do is put your character into a conflict or emotionally charged situation and see how he'll react. In one of those Blue Books I use the example of two people running from a tiger and one slips and falls - does the protag go back to help them (and risk their life) or keep running? With either of those choices there are details that give us more character information - if he keeps running, what does he do when he hears the first scream?

But you don't need a tiger to create conflict. There's a great scene in TAXI DRIVER where Travis is sitting with a bunch of other cabbies in a diner and one of the cabbies says he won't pick up "niggers" any more. Travis is the only one at the table who looks around the diner - filled with African-Americans, to see if anyone was offended. Even the Black cabbie at the table doesn't look around! So here we have conflict - the N-word - and reaction. Travis seems to care if anyone is offended. Now he may care because he doesn't want to get beat up, or he may care about other people's feelings - doesn't matter. He *knows* the N-word is offensive and the other cabbies don't. The very next line cements this - one of the cabbies mentions that Travis drives the whole city - he picks up fares of all colors. Travis responds that he doesn't care who he picks up, all fares are the same to him.

Counter this scene with the scene where Travis takes Betsy to the movies... to a porno theater. What's interesting is that Travis knows the N-word offends Black people but doesn't have a clue about women. He has no idea that Betsy will be offended by the porno film.

We learn the boundaries of Travis' world in these two scenes. He may know about the people in that crummy diner but he doesn't know anything about the world you and I call normal. Travis is isolated from "normal" society.

This also comes out in a bunch of scenes with Travis interacting with "normal" people - he is painfully out of the loop. In the first scene he tries to tell a joke to the boss and it falls flat. He just doesn't interface with other people. He's in his own world and can't connect.

Situation and basic story decisions play into this, too - he's a taxi driver, there's a partition between him and the customers in the back seat. He drives at night - when he might be the only car on the road. All of those things are CHARACTER.

THE CONFLICT WITHIN

Plus there's conflict in Travis - he wants to pull Betsy into his world (the porno theater) but wants to rescue Iris from his world! This gives us some information about how Travis feels about himself that isn't mentioned in his diary. Does he hate the world he lives in? He'd assassinate the Senator because he's a symbol of Betsy's world (and the man who gets in the way of his romance with Betsy) - but he also tells the Senator that he's his biggest fan. Travis is like those people on message boards who start out kissing your ass, then insult you. I think this plays into his isolation from society. When his plans to kill the Senator fall through, he picks another authority figure - Sport - to assassinate. But it's still a contradiction that he wants Betsy in his world but wants Iris to go back to suburbia with her parents. So - what's the contradiction within your character? How is he fighting himself?

You can also give your character moral limitations and a goal that makes them deal with those limits - the tiger and the fallen friend. I think the key to a good character is emotional conflict - they have a goal, but getting there means dealing with a fear or their own failings or something that creates so much emotional pain that they have to STRUGGLE with every step to that goal. No (emotional) pain, no gain.

The reason why I think that makes characters jump off the page?
a) They aren't just pawns in the story, the story is about them.
b) As someone who struggles with my fears and failings all the time, I can identify with characters who are faced with similar problems. They may not even be fears and failings that I have had, but I understand how difficult it is to have that kind of problem.

How is your character their own worst enemy?
How does the story keep them bumping into their emotional problems?

Here are four ways to show who your character really is - to make them real:

1) INTRO SCENE that gives us a bunch of information about character.
2) CONFLICT exposes character.
3) SITUATIONS designed to show character.
4) CONTRADICTION within character shows dimension.

But here's the big question - what does it tell you about *my* character that I used Venkman and Travis as character examples?


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