Watch as many movies and television programs as possible with an audience. If it will still take time for theaters to reopen, actively recall the movie lines that received the loudest responses when you were at the cinema … that informed a character unlike any other.
I’m a Star Wars geek, so here are two exchanges that quickly come to mind.
From what is now Episode IV: A New Hope and was once known only as Star Wars:
Luke Skywalker: I did it! I did it!
Han Solo: Great kid! Don’t get cocky!
Solo’s response, each time I saw the film in theaters, received by far the loudest reaction (save for perhaps his “Woo-hoo” just before Luke blasted the Death Star) of any line from the film. He had already been portrayed as an arrogant, cocksure smartass. We found out only later on he had a heart under the rough exterior.
But the irony of the most cocky of men advising his younger cohort to not “get cocky” was brilliant. Solo’s character was beginning to jibe. He was in denial about his own flaws.
As he said to Princess Leia in the perhaps the greatest sequel ever made (ScreenCraft members, argue with me), The Empire Strikes Back:
Han Solo: (incredulous) Who’s scruffy-lookin’?
And, talk about character enhancement through dialog:
Princess Leia: I love you.
Han Solo: I know.
The Princess believed Solo was about to die. Han remained as proud and assured of himself as ever … though he was clearly apprehensive as to his fate.
But character is not built on dialog alone. It is built on context; it is built on action.
As I’ve been on a Harrison Ford kick in this article, remember how Indiana Jones defeated the seemingly unbeatable swords master in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Indy pulled his gun and shot him dead.
He watched the display of swordsmanship for a few seconds, then ended it.
Indiana Jones is not a time-waster. He is, though, quite pragmatic.
We can go on with great characters throughout movie history.
Humphrey Bogart’s stoic, no-nonsense Rick Blaine from Casablanca, who very nearly fell apart after reuniting with his long-lost love, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund. Speaking of, Ilsa’s Resistance-runner husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), displaying nationalistic fervor while ordering the band of Rick’s Café Americain (with Rick’s nod as an okay) to “Play the Marseillaise. Play it!”
Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, who refuses to believe her glory days are long behind her. Talia Shire’s Adrian from Rocky, a wallflower who escapes her shell in the name of love. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie White from Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, abused and tormented by her peers and her mother, who wreaked havoc on her high school prom while her mother’s words rang in her ears: “They’re all gonna laugh at you.”
Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, whose general apathy towards his day-to-day dead end existence led to a burst of extraordinary anger and a riot on the hottest day of the year. Jason Miller as Father Karris in The Exorcist, torn by the guilt of his dying mother and his wavering faith. John Travolta’s comeback as hitman Vinnie Vega in Pulp Fiction, whose character academic writer Joseph Natoli accurately described as “cool indifference.”
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker delivered a masterclass in acting, based on a screenplay that took the time to consider problematic issues regarding mental health. And, his dance down those steps — with no words save for a background song — in full Joker regalia was horrifying.
I can go on forever, it seems, but the more I list the more I will inadvertently omit.
The point is great creative works that tell story — be it screenplays, books, teleplays or live-action play scripts — are driven by their characters.
So, what can you do with your characters to make your screenplay that much more compelling?
What follows is a list of tips …
- Consider the characters you love. Or consider the ones I mentioned above with whom you are familiar. Ask yourself the following questions: 1) Why did this character resonate with me? 2) Why has this character remained so resonant with audiences? 3) What is the character’s main flaw that has driven his or her actions? Adapt your responses to characters in your own script.
- Write down real life conversations. Engage as many real life conversations as you can, and later on jot down quirks, tone of voice, looks (in terms of facial expression and physical appearance), and other prominent characteristics. Consider how these characteristics would make your characters more realistic.
- Write the qualities of your characters outside of your script. Are they interesting? Why? Are they archetypical with thoughts and emotions common to other resonant characters? Are they also different? What makes them unique?
- What do you want your actors to bring to their roles, if anything? Do you want them to slavishly follow your script, or to be able to improvise due to a certain personal quality? Reflect your answer in the writing of your characters. Leave room in your descriptions if the latter is your preference, though still include their general qualities. Your challenge is to make them stand out, regardless.
- Avoid cliché at all costs. We’ve all seen fast-talking Tarantino-esque gangsters dozens of times. Nothing beats the originals, so be original with your characters. Write as though you want other screenwriters to copy you.
- So-called “Rocky stories” have become tropes. We’ve seen these underdog stories repeatedly, to differing levels of success and quality. Again, your characters will make the difference. Those in the first Rocky, for example, all stood out in large part due to the synergy between the writing and the acting. We’ve seen characters like the concerned trainer before, the dim fighter (who later educated himself), the wallflower … The film’s dialog and heart also made this one stand out.
- Never be afraid to experiment, or “go there” in your writing. Lead the audience into believing your character is going to do one thing, before heading into unpredictable or even dark territory. Define your characters, though, so they don’t stagger in the dark and walk in circles, so to speak.
- Moral ambiguity is always a plus. If your character struggles with right and wrong, that potentially creates an interesting, compelling character so long as his or her struggle is real.
- What are their internal conflicts? We frequently talk about conflict as it regards story, but what of conflict as it regards your characters? What are those conflicts? If your characters have none, chances are they will fall flat and be one-note. Always give your characters conflict. Again, the one that comes quickest to mind for me is Rick in Casablanca. He could have had the girl, but he was noble and did what was right.
- Treat your characters as you would treat your loved ones. And, also, treat your characters as you would those you don’t like. Create situations and conflicts, then bring forth resolutions that you would want to see. The reality is we all have people in our lives we either do not care for or are ambivalent towards. No, I am not suggesting fantasizing about anything negative for them; I am wholeheartedly suggesting to determine the fates of characters you both love and dislike based on those you love and dislike in life. No one has to know who, if anyone, you had in mind during the writing process.
The reality of being a writer who sells is distinguished from the reality of being a writer who wants to sell by virtue of character and story.
There is a philosophical theory of reality, said to be based in a degree of scientific study, that asks: Did the world create consciousness … or did consciousness create the world?
Though I may not subscribe to the second option, I well subscribe to that line of thinking when it comes to creating compelling characters: Do characters make your story … or does story make the characters?
My response is this: The most compelling character in one of the greatest films ever made was not human. Sentient computer HAL 9000, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, was the movie’s core. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole were secondary.
Yet the story of the three resonates all these years later.
Why? Because the character of HAL made the story. Without HAL, we would have been simply floating in the stars for two hours.
Of course, there are innumerable examples where both options could be argued, but I stand by personally that great characters make great stories.
There’s only, then, a few more things to say: Thank you for reading, and work on those characters!
I hope you found this article valuable.
Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.