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3 Keys to Compelling Characters

No, it isn't about making them "likable".

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting
blue ruin movie screenplay

Without characters in movies, we’d just be staring at scenery.

I kid, I kid. Of course it goes beyond that. Stories – including movies – are lessons for life. And characters are our way into these lessons.

From Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius: “Story’s evolutionary purpose is to allow us to vicariously navigate unexpected situations from the safety of our own armchair…”

“Vicariously” literally means “felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others.” So we need “others” through which to imagine navigating these unexpected situations, right?

Lessons have more staying power when they resonate with us emotionally. So experiencing a situation through a character is about feeling what they feel in the moment.

screenwriting compelling characters tips

Michael Hauge calls this “identification”. In Writing Screenplays that Sell, he says:

“Identification with a character means that the audience, or reader, experiences emotion through that character. In other words, the audience puts itself inside the character emotionally to experience the story: if the character is in danger, the audience feels frightened; if the character suffers loss, the audience feels sad.”

When we’re consuming a story, our brain synchronizes with the main character’s experience, and we become the protagonist – in our minds – allowing us to viscerally experience what he’s going through as he tries to solve the story problem and achieve his driving goal.

But a lot of writers struggle with creating characters that readers (or audiences) want to live vicariously through. Characters we’re eager – or at least willing – to spend time with.

Contrary to a lot of boilerplate advice out there, that doesn’t mean your characters have to be likeable. But they do have to engage us somehow.

If we’re not engaged, we’re closing the script, or turning off the TV.

So what makes us hook into a character so we can live vicariously through them?

3 keys to compelling characters

Say you’re out there in the dating world, and you’re looking for someone to spend some time with. A witty pickup line might grab your interest for a moment, but if that person doesn’t follow up with something to hold your interest, the relationship is probably over before it starts.

Characters, too, can be revealed to us in layers that grab and hold our interest.

Let’s look at three of these layers that you can use to build your characters.

1. The spark of attraction.

First, there is attraction. Before we can get to the deeper layers, we do need that initial spark of interest.

Make us lean in and want to know more with a compelling character introduction.

Michael Hauge outlines nine strategies that can be used to introduce a character, three that he calls essential tactics. He even goes so far as to say that one of these three MUST be employed in order for us to identify with the hero.

While I’m not a fan of hard-and-fast rules, I do think these three techniques are widely used to good effect. They are:

(Most of the examples used here are Hauge’s.)

blue ruin movie screenplay

1. Create sympathy for the character through undeserved misfortune.

C.D. in Roxanne is ridiculed for his big nose. Emma Greenway in Terms of Endearment loses her father, and her mother refuses to come to her wedding.

Blue Ruin is my favorite recent example of creating sympathy. We learn pretty quickly that the main character experienced a horrible family tragedy, and his life went off the rails in the aftermath. We’re introduced to him in his current state, which is a ruined man.

2. Create worry for the character by putting him in jeopardy.

Jeopardy is the threat of danger, but showing the threat of capture, exposure, embarrassment, or defeat can be similarly effective, depending on the tone of the movie.

A recent example is Everly. The movie opens on a shell-shocked, half-naked young woman limping into a hotel bathroom. Men’s voices are heard from outside the door. Danger looms.

3. Make the character likable.

Wait- didn’t I say we wouldn’t worry about likability? Isn’t that the terrible note that hack readers give?

To be clear, your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable. But it is an option. Likability can work. So don’t rule it out completely.

Hauge says: “There are basically three ways to get a reader to like your hero, which can be used singly or in combination,” and they are:

  • Make the character a good or nice person (Norma Rae)
  • Make the character funny (Beverly Hills Cop)
  • Make the character good at what he does (Dirty Harry)

beverly hills cop movie screenplay

My challenge to you: Can you think of a good character introduction that doesn’t employ one of these methods (undeserved misfortune, jeopardy, likability)? Let’s analyze why it works and add more options to the list.

2. What they care about.

That initial spark only lasts so long, so it’s important to follow it up fairly quickly with the next layer. Something a little more substantial, to engage us on a deeper level. Often, that’s showing us what’s at stake for the character and why that matters to them.

As we talked about in this article:

When you make us care about the situation the character’s in by showing us why it matters, we feel compelled to stick around to see how it will end. We need to know how it will all turn out.

So show us WHAT is at stake, and WHY it matters to the character.

3. How they contradict themselves.

In real life, we observe the behavior of others, looking for patterns to help us understand what kind of person they are. And so it is with characters.

Characters often have a surface-level pattern of behavior which helps us get a quick handle on how to categorize them (he’s a snob… she’s a bully… he’s timid… she’s generous…). This helps us feel like we “get” them.

This is especially helpful to readers, who are trying to quickly digest the story you’re telling. A recognizable pattern gives us a shorthand to understand them.

But the most interesting characters also break their own patterns at key moments – usually when under pressure. And that challenge to our expectations can pique our curiosity.

So consistency + contradiction = continued interest.

HOWEVER… taking this tip on its face could be misleading. Because those contradictions must be deliberately planned. Characters who look like random collections of traits, with no rhyme or reason to them, are more likely to turn readers (and audiences) off.

Why? Because we’re searching for meaning. We want to understand.

Contradiction done well is interesting. Confusion is off-putting. The contradictions have to ultimately make more sense, rather than less.

But how can that be?

When the contradiction provides insight. When it’s actually a clue to the character’s internal struggle.

The internal struggle is the conflict between the way the character thinks they need to behave in the world — their current survival strategy, even if they’re not aware of it — and a deeper or hidden need they have that is rooted in the change they need to make to become healthier, happier, more authentic. The outcome of the internal struggle results in the character experiencing a character arc, or not.

Over the course of the story, escalating events cause the character to have to choose between the two. Old strategy vs. new.

Characters, like people, don’t often change unless they have to. So when we see what it takes for a character to abandon an old way of being and adopt a new (and often, more difficult) one, that shows us what the character values most.

Our understanding of that internal struggle invests us in the character even further. Consistency helps us “get” the character in one way. And seeing what it takes for a character to contradict their own strategy, to change their behavior, helps us “get” them even more fully.


No one layer here is more important than the others. Every piece of character information you provide should work in tandem to create one cohesive picture.

And these are three of the most common approaches to building a layered character, but there are many more available to you.

What’s your favorite way to create and reveal compelling characters?

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