A couple of notes for creating characters for Dramatic Narrative

A good character is a character whose behavior causes a lot of his or her own problems. How does who the character cause trouble for himself or herself? That’s a question the writer must ask.

Even if you have a straight-as-nails character who is only trying to do the “right thing” — the fact that the character keeps choosing to try to do the right thing should provide more complications. In “The Fugitive” (1993), Dr. Richard Kimble choose one time after another to pursue his wife’s killer. He’s doing the right thing — but always, to the point of danger. He helps people at a hospital while the police are looking for him; he refuses to surrender and instead tosses him self off the wall of a damn because he must do the right thing.

There are three reasons why working this way is important.

First, without this, the character is just a victim: all the bad things that happen in the script simply “attack” the character. There is a dishonesty in creating a character whose only problems in life come from other people. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to respond in an infinite number of ways. How a character chooses to respond makes the character interesting. And if the character is only being run down by others and never through an flaw of himself or herself, that means the character is perfect — and therefore not human.

Second, if a character makes distinctive, trouble making choices, the character is specific. The character, in other words, has character. He or she is not like other characters. We know this character on the screen through their choices. And if the character makes a different and contrary choice, we know that something important and significant has occurred. A specific character is a memorable character — and a memorable character is a character that both actors and audiences respond to.

Finally, this is an organizing principle for a screenplay. It’s like picking a limited pallet for a painting. By choosing specific behaviors for a character, the writer is focusing the work and narrowing down options. By the same token, the writer is making decisions about which behaviors to explore more deeply. In “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), Sonny constantly wants to make people happy. It’s why he decides to rob a bank to begin with, and the same behavior is what gets him trapped in the bank when he could have gotten out safely.

These lines of behavior are tools of construction, just like hard edges or soft edges serve to help build a painting. By being away of them, by making an active choice, the writer creates something as artful and well constructed as a great painting.

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