Whether you fancy yourself a writer of film, television, podcasts, or plays, it all boils down to one key ingredient—the character. From leading ladies to antiheroes to full-blown villains, characters are the heart of any great story and taking the time to fully develop their arcs and motivations is crucial to the success of your work.
So what does it take to craft a truly compelling character? How can you walk the line of “likability” without letting conventions and archetypes get in the way of your story? Our panelist roster is chock-full of writers and creators known for crafting interesting and believable characters, and we’ve turned to them for some advice on the subject.
Here are seven tips for crafting character from the master storytellers whose compelling characters have shaped the landscape of entertainment:
LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTERS
People always say acting is listening, but I think for me, writing is listening, too. I spent a lot of time listening to what my characters are trying to tell me about who they are and they are always telling you, and it’s the mysterious part of writing where you have all this craft and you spend all this time making it as good as it can be, and then at the same time, your unconscious knows more than you do, and you have to kind of keep that channel open.
-Greta Gerwig (writer/director Lady Bird, Little Women (2019); writer Frances Ha) at AFF 2017
ALLOW THEM TO EVOLVE ON THE PAGE
Very often for me, the characters will reveal themselves on the page and in process. I don’t necessarily go in knowing who they are…it’s a discovery.
-Jenji Kohan (writer/creator Orange is the New Black, Weeds; writer/producer Gilmore Girls, Mad About You) at AFF 2013
MAKE US EMPATHIZE
Empathy…whether you agree or disagree with how one person treats the other person, empathy is the audience connection you want to make with your characters. They don’t have to like them, but they do have to empathize with the pressure you’re putting on them, or with the pressure that’s being put on them by their situation or journey.
-James V. Hart (writer Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Contact, Tuck Everlasting, Muppet Treasure Island, August Rush, Epic, Crossbones; Creator, HartChart) at AFF 2017
IGNORE THE NAYSAYERS
Darth Vader thought he was doing the right thing, and he is a hero to Emperor Palpatine. There will be enough people once you get your script to a place who are going to say, “You’re going to lose your audience.” So, let them tell you that—and then write what you’re going to write.
-Jenny Lumet (writer Rachel Getting Married) at AFF 2012
EMBRACE THEIR FLAWS
People talk about being “likeable.” That’s a huge part of the process. People talk about it all the time, and I think there is this difference between being likeable—you can be likeable and be flawed—but you really just have to want to be with the characters. You want to feel like you’re on their side, even if they’re not making great choices.
-Aline Brosh McKenna (writer/co-creator Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; writer The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory, 27 Dresses, We Bought a Zoo, Annie) at AFF 2012
KEEP THINGS INTERESTING
The goal is to always write somebody who’s as interesting as possible, as human, as exciting as possible. It’s a piece of film entertainment, so you want to be entertaining, and those tastes change along the way, but it’s always the same thing: write somebody that is life-like and people want to see; that you’d be interested to see what happens to that guy or woman.
-David Chase (writer/creator The Sopranos; writer/producer The Rockford Files, I’ll Fly Away) at AFF 2012
WRITE PASSION-DRIVEN CHARACTERS
It’s a one-word answer, and it’s always the same. It’s passion. I love characters who are driven to accomplish some idea that is very important to them, and nothing will stop them, and a lot of the time, they’re wrong and they shouldn’t be trying to achieve it, but it’s so important to them to get their way…and that passion drives the movie.
-Scott Alexander (writer Ed Wood, The People v. O.J. Simpson, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes) at AFF 2017
Visit onstory.tv for a closer look inside the creative process from today’s leading writers and filmmakers.
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