“Readers fall in love with characters, not plots.”
This advice from a bestselling novelist came to me after I had already figured out that I needed to spend more time in character development. Most writers do not understand how deep this goes. Whether you are an experienced writer or a novice, writing in a fiction genre or even in non-fiction, you need to get to know the people whose story you are telling.
Story flows from character and not the other way around. This piece of writing wisdom is in the dialogue of one of my favorite movies about writing, The Rewrite, starring Hugh Grant and written by the wildly successful screen and TV writer, Marc Lawrence, famous for light comedies often starring Hugh Grant or Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice, The Rewrite).
A huge mistake many writers make is putting plot before character, but even if this is old news to you I will bet you don’t know enough about how to build lovable, memorable characters. In My Plan for Writing a Book which is my essential workbook I use at the VSW writing retreat in Mexico, it contains my famous Character Form with dozens of attributes on it, the most valuable of which I will explain.
Most of true character development is discovering the character’s origins and back story, and the more you know about it the more you know the character. Consider all the Marvel or Super Hero characters, even if they are cheesy or fantastical all of them have what the comic book world calls an origin story. The darker the back story, the darker the hero; consider Batman versus Superman. Back story can go into endless detail on each character if you want it to, but you really only need to do it in greater detail for essential characters. And don’t forget the villains. There are too many flat villains out there whose only raison d’être seems to be to frustrate the protagonist with no believable aims of their own.
So, what elevates a well drawn character to a character who people fall in love with? Even if they are the villain. I am going to give you five that are not at all obvious, but are things that made us fall in love with great characters of literary and screen history. I will describe the attributes a little, and then test them out on some famous characters.
Here are the five:
- Favorite Phrase
- Dread Death (or greatest fear)
- Musical Instrument (they play or you could imagine them playing)
- Their Weapon or Shield
- Their Greatest Physical Vanity
Habitual or Favorite Phrase – This is the phrase that is inextricably associated with this character, such as “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Dread Death – This is the death that the character is most afraid of for themselves, but can also be their greatest fear (where they would die a metaphorical death of humiliation, failure or loss). Again, it can add color to the character if it comes up in the narrative, but it can also reveal something important about them. We see Indiana Jones hates snakes early in the film, this would have come up as his Dread Death – death by snakes, and does add color. I got to know one of my own characters better when I found out that the way he was most afraid of dying was to have a heart attack in public. I suddenly had an insight of how important it was for him to maintain an aura of strength publicly.
Musical Instruments (they play or would play) – Your character may not play a musical instrument, but just thinking about them playing one gives you a deeper emotional feel for this character. Let them be vulnerable here, or brilliant, or funny, or sad. What kind of instrument would they play if they could? I once met a man who wanted to learn the cello so he could put his arms around something.
Their Weapon or Shield – The character may have an actual weapon or it can be something they use like a weapon, their sexuality for instance. Think of every great seductress villain. Cat Woman, anyone?
Their Greatest Physical Vanity – This one is often great to add a comic element to the character and wonderful if they can’t see it themselves but everyone else can, making them that much more adorable. Consider the characters played by George Clooney in the Coen brothers movies, Brother Where Art Though and Intolerable Cruelty. The brother writers, masters of characters and comedy, made one of Clooney’s characters obsessed with his hair and another obsessed with his teeth.
Take a look at the table below. With the unknown elements you can agree or disagree with what these characters attributes or desires may be, but even asking the questions gives you a greater possible insight.
Table of Greatest Loved Characters in History and Their Attributes:
You can see that most of the authors made sure these characters really did encounter what they were most afraid of at least once and their quirks gave them the personality to make us believe they existed. And, if they couldn’t actually exist, we collectively wanted them to for a long, long, time.
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