Creating convincing characters that are believable takes time and discipline. Creating dynamically real individuals without imposing your own thoughts and impressions upon them is not easy to do, but this step is often the difference between a novel or screenplay that sits in a closet and one that finds its way around town and into the hands of audiences. Spend time with character development – building your characters before they enter the world of your story – and you turn the process of writing your manuscript into an easier and more enjoyable ride. You also get the added reward of a finished product that agents, publishers, producers and readers can truly be excited by.
There is no magic to character development. You can create living, breathing people, monsters, animals and settings by following a few, simple steps. In the end, you will have created three-dimensionality that breathes life into your story.
As a former executive with LA Film Lab Entertainment (a literary development and production company), I have learned that good writing isn’t a gift. Talent equals discipline multiplied by time, and you must practice (daily) the art of development to master your craft. Here is a proven framework to assist you in creating rich and complex characters.
The complexity that you desire comes through:
1) Labeling their desire essences
2) Labeling their fear essences
3) Getting specific about their past
4) Labeling their behavior
5) Raising their stakes
6) Not meddling in their lives
7) Letting them play.
Ask provoking questions in line with these steps, answer them thoroughly, and then repeat the process to provide constant individual growth in your characters that mirrors life. In this series of articles, I will guide you through the seven steps to successful character development. In this first part, we’ll work through the first two steps: your characters’ desires and fears.
1) Label the Desire Essences of each of your main characters
The first key to deepening your work comes from finding the major motivators in the lives of your characters. What drives their actions and reactions? Do their desires stem from specific experiences? We all have deep-seeded aspirations that spur our choices, thoughts, acts, and responses. These stimuli are what differentiate us from one another and we will refer to them as “Desire Essences.” Some examples of Desire Essences are the desire to: be intellectually brilliant; be socially famous; hide from the world; belong to a group; be loved; party wildly; or end your suffering and die.
Desire is at the core of every being. We naturally aspire to be, do, or possess something that is just beyond our reach. Desire can be simple or deeply passionate. Write down the ten most important desire essences of each character! Once you have explored this component of your character’s psyche, you are on your way to mastering their voice.
2) Label the Fear Essences of each of your main characters
What lies at the root of each of your characters’ darker sides? For every desire they possess, they should also exhibit the antithetical fear of failing at attaining that desire. These fears will battle their aspirations for control over their behavior. Understand and then label the darker sides of your characters. This step is imperative to creating the dimensional and imperfect characters you are after. Some examples of Fear Essences are the fear of being: stupid; ordinary; socially exposed; rejected by a group; loathed; boring; or having to face life. Write down the ten most important fear essences of each character.
In the next installment of this four-part series, we’ll work on developing the back story behind these essences that creates the foundation for your characters’ present lives. We’ll also delve into their behavior and explore ways to build characters that are exciting, dynamic, and unique.
In the meantime writers, keep your rear in the chair, your fingers on the keys, and your writing reaching for the stars.