Creating Interesting Characters – Part Tres
#6: GUEST POST BY AUTHOR MIKE FARRIS
People read books and watch movies for a good story well told, to be sure, but they also want characters they can identify with. If they don’t care about the characters, they’ll stop reading on page 74 of the book or go to sleep about 25 minutes into the movie – or worse, close the book or walk out of the theater. So what techniques can you use to help the reader/viewer identify with your characters? Well, here are just a few:
Create sympathy. If you can make the reader either feel sorry for, or empathetic with, a character, you’ve made a good start. Give the character some trait that subjects him or her to ridicule or disadvantage, or make him or her a victim of some undeserved misfortune, and you’ve created a character that we can all identify with to some degree. This is the easiest device to use and, consequently, is the most overused and abused. The trick will be for you to do this in an original way and to avoid the temptation to go overboard to the melodramatic or maudlin. In other words, don’t go “over the top.”
Make the character likable. Sounds obvious, but it’s not. We all know people who are good, decent people, but who are, for one reason or another, unlikable. So how do we make our characters likable? Answer that one and maybe we’ll solve some of our own problems.
Common approaches are to make the character nice, honest in a dishonest world, funny, good at what he does, intelligent (Why did we like the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting? After all, he was basically a thug. Well, it was because he was highly intelligent, which made us see a spark of potential in him.), brave, or daring.
Place the character in jeopardy. This is a cousin to the “create sympathy” device, but the goal is to make the reader worry about the character’s plight rather than merely feel sympathy. By jeopardy, I don’t necessarily mean a life-threatening situation, but simply a situation that exposes the character to some degree of risk and harm. In other words, give him or her “stakes” that are at risk. As a comic example, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris and his friends spent the entire movie in jeopardy of getting caught skipping school. In the world of lawyers and law firms, it can be the jeopardy of losing an important case, of getting caught in some form of malpractice, or not making partner (arguably the real jeopardy would be in actually making partner).
Introduce the character early. Readers are more likely to identify with the characters they meet first and, consequently, know the longest. If you can introduce your character in Chapter One, great, though there may be some inciting incident that may need to in the first chapter that sets the story in motion and that doesn’t involve your protagonist. If that’s the case, I’d suggest making sure your protagonist shows up in Chapter Two.
Place the character in a familiar setting. This is yet another cousin to the “create sympathy” device, but effective. We identify with people who are like us or who come from the places we know or inhabit.
Give the character familiar flaws, quirks, and eccentricities. Yet another cousin.
Reveal the opportunity for redemption. This is maybe the trickiest one, because it typically is used to “salvage” a protagonist who is inherently unlikable. We saw that in our prior discussion of Frank Galvin, the character Paul Newman played in The Verdict. The man was the lowest of the low – an unscrupulous attorney (some would say that’s redundant) who preys on the bereaved at funeral homes. He doesn’t even have the intelligence that made Will Hunting somewhat likable at the start. But in the opening couple of scenes of The Verdict, we saw that this lawyer knew what he had become, hated it, and longed to be a better man. In that moment, we saw the spark that told us the man was capable of redemption. And in that moment, we were transformed from disliking him into wanting him to be salvaged.
Motivation. Let your readers know what your protagonist’s motivation is, what it is that drives him or her. That’s really what story is all about—identifying with a character who has a goal and then strives to achieve that goal. Who can’t identify with striving for a goal? The goal should be something for which the character has to take risks and possibly make sacrifices. In other words, something must be at stake in his or her pursuit of that goal – a direct cousin of the jeopardy technique discussed above. The goal should be difficult to attain, challenging the protagonist. Furthermore, pursuit of the goal must bring the protagonist into direct conflict with the antagonist.
Motivation can also be broken down into two categories: inner and outer, or internal and external. There must be some external goal the protagonist strives for, such as attaining partnership, winning a case, solving a murder, playing hooky, or breaking up my best friend’s wedding. But lurking beneath the surface is an inner motivation. Outer motivation answers the question, “What does the protagonist want to accomplish by the end of the story?” Inner motivation answers the question of why the protagonist wants to accomplish that. And haven’t we all asked ourselves that?
Choices. The hardest part of creating characters is establishing the characters’ character. The easy thing is for writers to give the character more quirks and physical mannerisms. All this really does, though, is reveal more characterization—the first two prongs, or dimensions, of character we discussed before. It’s that third dimension you have to strive for—the dimension that can make or break a character.
True character is revealed by the decisions one makes or actions one takes when confronted with crises or difficult choices. As has been often said before, character is revealed when tested under fire. Robert McKee, in his book Story, wrote this: “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the
revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
There’s a lot of truth to this, in real life as well as in fiction. We all face choices on a
daily basis, some more consequential than others. By giving our characters choices, we put them in our shoes, or put ourselves in theirs – and establish characters with whom we can identify. We then just have to wonder whether we have the inner character to make the right decisions in the face of those choices.
If you really want to create interesting and identifiable characters, give them choices to make. Choices that require them to sacrifice something for themselves in order to make the right choice.
Choices: They’re what life is made of.
Mike Farris, a retired entertainment attorney and litigator, was lead attorney in the lawsuit in Fort Worth that involved royalties to the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy, which resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client. He collaborated with his client to write a book about the case, the award-winning Fifty Shades of Black & White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon. He is the author of four other non-fiction books, including the Hawaiian true crime books A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow and Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga. In the world of fiction, Mike is the author of ten published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.