Creating Interesting Characters – Part Deux


I’m often asked what the biggest difference is between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. My answer varies, depending on what crosses my mind at that given moment, but one thing that comes up often is this: With a novel, you have the freedom to expound on your characters’ characters. You internalize, telling the reader what the characters are thinking, or you go into exposition mode in a narrative paragraph, or you simply explain to the readers whatever it is you need them to know.

You’re not limited by 110 pages or a rule of thumb that says, “If you don’t see it on the screen, it doesn’t go down on the page.” To a novelist, words are your friends.

But to a screenwriter, pictures are your friends. Movies are a visual medium and, as a screenwriter, you don’t have the luxury of simply writing a paragraph or two, or page or two, to delve into character. Instead, you’ve got to show character to the viewer. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a lot of the fun of screenwriting. When done well, it’s a delight.

But what I have learned over the years is that visual writing in screenplays can also translate to visual writing in novels. If anything, it’s better than simply telling the reader about your character; it’s showing the reader your character in action.

So how, exactly, do you show character? Allow me to show you by example.

First, stop whatever you’re doing and order the DVD of The Verdict, starring Paul Newman. This is based on a novel of the same title written by Barry Reed, but for purposes of what I’m talking about here, work with the movie version because it illustrates the point I’m making.

Once you have the DVD, watch the first five minutes – I dare say you’ll be hooked and want to watch the rest, but the first five minutes will suffice for our purposes here.

Through? Okay, now let’s talk about what you saw.

The movie opens with Frank Galvin (played by Newman) dressed nicely in a pinstriped suit and tie – playing pinball and drinking beer in the middle of the day. That’s not a happy look on his face, either. Either he’s having trouble at pinball or something’s eating at him inside.

Cut to a funeral home. A visual of money being counted out and changing hands. Going from Frank’s hand to the funeral director’s hand. Then, a puff or two of breath spray, and Frank follows the director down the aisle to the grieving family.

The director introduces Frank to the grieving widow – “This is Frank Galvin. He’s a good friend of ours, and a very fine attorney.”

With all the sincerity he can muster, Frank tells the widow, “It’s just a shame what happened to you husband. I knew him vaguely at the Lodge. He was a wonderful man. It was a crime what happened to him. If I can help, in any way . . .” Then he presses a business card into her hand. “Don’t hesitate to call.” His words trail off in an ooze of sleaze.

Cut back to the bar. Frank’s there, leaning over a newspaper, pen in hand, glass of beer at the ready. He grabs the glass, his hands shake. He puts the glass down, leans over and deeply inhales the alcohol emissions. Turns his attention to the newspaper: The obituary page. He circles a death notice.

Cut to another funeral home. Frank’s at the head of the line, business card in hand. “If I can help in any way . . .” he says to the widow as he presses another business card into another numbed hand.

But bad news. The grieving widow has a son who jumps into the conversation – and he’s outraged when he sees the card. “What is that?” he asks.

“Oh, that’s my card,” Frank answers. “I was a friend of your father’s.”
The son takes the card. “You never knew my father,” he says, outraged voice rising.

“Get out of here.”
Before you know it, Frank’s booted out onto the street by the funeral director. The last

thing you see on his face is a combination of disbelief and horror. Cut to Frank’s rundown office. In a drunken rage, he trashes the office as if he were a rock star in a five-star hotel, before collapsing in a heap on the floor in a stupor.

Now, think about what you already know in the first five minutes of the movie about Frank Galvin’s character from what you just saw; not a description of him that you read, but saw. Keep in mind that, in the scenes you just watched, dialogue was minimal. It was darn near Calvin Coolidge-esque. But based on what you saw, what do you know about Frank? Hearken back to my prior article about the three dimensions of character to answer.

For starters, you know that he’s a very distinguished – dare I say it, handsome? – man. He’s wearing a nice-fitting suit and has all the earmarks of a businessman or some other professional. You probably even guessed right away that he’s a lawyer. Of course, the title of the movie is a dead giveaway, or you already knew it if you’ve read the novel from which it was adapted. Still, that first dimension of character tells you some basic things about him.

But let’s dig deeper and get into the second and third dimensions. What else do you know from what you saw? You not only know that he’s a lawyer, but you also know that he’s the lowest form of ambulance chaser. He reads the obituaries, then shows up at funeral homes to find clients. (As a lawyer, I should tell you that the State Bars in every state frown on that.) Still, he’s charming as he goes about it. He shows respect and deference, so no matter what kind of sleaze he’s become, he still knows proper decorum.

We also know he’s probably a down-on-his-luck lawyer. We know that not only from his casket-chasing, but also from the fact that he’s got time in the middle of the day to hang out in bars and play pinball. Successful, busy lawyers don’t.

He’s a drunk. He can’t even hold his hand still enough to drink his beer, so he luxuriates in its fumes. A beer sauna, in effect. But we also know that he’s smart – savvy. Much as the profession frowns on what he does, you’ll have to admit it’s a kind of ingenious scheme. Prey on the bereaved while their guard is down and who knows, you might just sign up a client.

But then we learn two more very important things about Frank as these scenes end. The look on his face when he’s booted out of the funeral home tells us that there once was a better man deep inside – and he knows it. The scene of his destructive rage in his office tells us he hates what he’s become.

And at that moment, a thoroughly despicable character earns our sympathy. We see his pain and we understand that he yearns for a chance at redemption. We want that for him, as well. Now, all we have to do is wait with him for the case to come along – the case, that the movie is all about. The case that will offer him redemption.

And we learned all this just by watching a few minutes out of Frank Galvin’s day.

Here’s how you translate that into writing prose for your novel. Don’t tell the reader that Frank is an ambulance/casket chaser; write a scene that shows the reader he’s an ambulance/casket chaser. Don’t tell the reader that Frank is a down on his luck lawyer; write a scene that shows the reader he’s a down on his luck lawyer. Don’t tell the reader that Frank hates what he’s become; write a scene that shows the reader that he hates what he’s become.

Now, watch the rest of the movie, because there’s still more to learn from it about showing character and also about showing character arc (which I’ll talk about later).

Then go and do likewise with your own characters in your own novels.


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