Making Characters Interesting

If nobody cares about your hero, your story is sunk right from the start. Here are some techniques to consider to make your hero one multi-dimensional and thus real and someone worth caring about.

In the book “Screenplay: Writing the Picture,” the authors offer some techniques to make your hero feel more like a real person and less like a cardboard puppet being pushed around just for the sake of a story.

Technique #1: “The Ghost” — This is where something from the past is haunting the hero that the hero needs to correct. In “Cliffhanger,” Sylvester Stallone couldn’t save a novice from falling to her death, so that failure helps motivate his future actions. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is trying to deal with his own stubbornness that led to his break up with his wife, but the black police officer who befriends him later is also haunted by accidentally shooting a kid with a toy gun. “In the Line of Fire,” Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service agent haunted by his inability to protect John F. Kennedy from assassination, which forms his driving motivation.

“The Ghost” technique is all about some bad memory that motivates the character to do something to avoid recreating that bad past event all over again.

Technique #2: “Internal Conflict” — Make the character choose between two conflicting goals so the audience wants to see which one the character chooses. In “The Last Picture Show,” Jeff Bridges plays a teenager who is having an affair with an older woman, but then he gets a chance to date the prettiest girl in the school, so there’s the conflict of what he’ll do? Stay loyal to the older woman or date the pretty girl from his high school who he’s been lusting at since the start of the movie?

Al Pacino faces such internal conflict in “The Godfather” where he initially doesn’t want to be part of the organized crime family. His conflict is that he doesn’t want to get involved, but if he doesn’t get involved, the family risks being torn apart by rival factions. If he does get involved, then he’ll go against his own moral code in the process.

Romantic comedies often use this “internal conflict” technique to make each character face difficult decisions. They either do what’s easiest or follow their heart and choose the person they were meant to be with all this time. In “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the hero at the end faces a choice of either marrying the girl he proposed to or stopping his wedding and marrying the girl he really wants. Not an easy choice, but that’s what makes the “internal conflict” technique so powerful and interesting.

Technique #3: “Fatal Flaw” — Give your character a major flaw that’s the cause of his dead end life, so now the battle isn’t external, but internal. Will the hero overcome his fatal flaw and live happily ever after? Or will the hero succumb to holding on to the fatal flaw and end the story in tragedy?

Notice that none of these three techniques are mutually exclusive, but can be used together to create a fully rounded character. For example, Luke in “Star Wars” has a “ghost” in wondering about his father, has internal conflict in wanting to leave and explore the galaxy while also remaining on the farm to help his uncle, and a fatal flaw in not being confident of his abilities.

George Clooney in “Up in the Air” has a fatal flaw of being isolated from life and enjoying it. However, that isolation keeps him from enjoying a close relationship with others including family members. He doesn’t appear to have much of a “ghost” haunting him but he does have a minor internal conflict in wanting company while also wanting his own freedom.

Use these three techniques to make your hero feel more like a real person with a strong motivation to take action. Most likely, you won’t use all three techniques in equal proportion, but use them in some way to make sure your characters feel like fully motivated people who take actions that are driven from their own desires and not just to satisfy the plot.

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