How to write a character – Part one

Unless you’re unnaturally talented, it takes a lot of writing crap before you figure out how to write characters, so nothing I write here will actually teach you this. But the road to learning anything is long, so this may be one tiny step along the way.

So, how to write a character. First, what is a character? A character is like a real person, but distilled, so they have opinions, loves, fantasies, habits, social class, manners, mannerisms, etc. They have a personality – my friend, Dan, would say that this makes them less realistic because most people don’t have personalities, but my feeling is that if they are worth making a movie about, they probably have a little personality.

Aside from being real people, they are also a sort of representation of aspects of human nature, which comes through as the reason you are writing this in the first place.

A character also needs something that I find a lot of screenwriters forget, which is charm and/or charisma. An actor can do a lot to bring up the charm level, but it helps when they’re not starting from scratch.

So a good character will effortlessly contain all of these things. It is effortless because they all sort of grow out of each other.

Now, that’s what a character is. But you can’t just describe the character, because this is movie you’re writing. Characters in films are defined by their actions and by what they say.   This is why they are distilled: because, and this is important, a character can only exist in the scenes that you have in your film. A character has a life outside of these scenes, and presumably before the movie started, but films exist in a certain time frame and your character will have to exist in within that time frame. A bad writer will reference the time outside of the film. A good writer doesn’t have to, and you’ll still know exactly what that reference is.

OK. So, let’s create a character. Here’s a line:

NANCY
This Prosecco isn’t that good.

Not a bad line, but what do we learn about this character? She likes Prosecco (which is Italian Champagne), and she’s probably had it before, so she comes from maybe an upper middle class background. She’s probably been to University, travelled to Europe. She knows enough about Prosecco to have an opinion about it, or maybe she’s just bold enough to have an opinion. But it’s not a very nice thing to say when someone offers you a glass of Prosecco, so maybe she’s kind of a bitch. Another little thing about characters, and good actors will always think about this, is that they are always coming into a scene from somewhere else. So maybe Nancy just had a shitty day and she’s unloading on her friend.

Now don’t confuse where a character is coming from with a character’s “motivation”, which is a term I find is abused like corn syrup in the food industry.  There are writers who feel that characters in every scene have to want something, after all, Indy wanted the Lost Ark.  I find this a silly premise because, as often as not, characters, like people, don’t really know what they want or why they are in a certain place.

But that line is a little dry. So let’s spruce it up a little. Give it some personality.

NANCY
This Prosecco tastes cheap.

or

This Prosecco tastes like shit.

or

This Prosecco tastes like someone poured it over my ex-husband’s hairy back.

See how any of those gives you certain kind of character?

Now, what does she do with her glass of Prosecco? Does she pour it out? Spit it out? Drink it down because she likes to drink? Drink it because she doesn’t really care what it tastes like? Throw it in her host’s face? It depends what you want to do.

So, lets just say she drinks it and asks for another glass. I mean, do we really want to get into a fight about the wine?

PAULA
My husband won’t spend more than 12 dollars
on a bottle of wine.

Your opinion of Paula’s husband probably depends on how much you think a good bottle of wine is worth, but he’s probably a bit of a social climber.   Paula knows better than to drink the swill her husband brings home, because she’s having a beer. Paula feels a little more down to earth to me. It’s not really the beer, it’s her sort of fatalistic acceptance of her situation. Her husband is cheap, but she lives around that. Nancy is probably a little snobby and intolerant and maybe that’s why she has an EX-husband instead of a husband.

Now I don’t know if I’d want to spend a whole movie with these two 30-something women unless at least one of them started having sex, but that depends on where they’re going and what they’re going to talk about. They’re not particularly deep characters right now, but already I’m getting a sense of who they are.

The choices they make in the rest of the scenes will make that character deeper and more complete – but it’s really that, like a person, the more time you spend with them, the more you get to know them. It’s another reason why they have to be someone you want to get to know.  So let’s make them fun to be around with a little small talk.

PAULA

When was the last time you got laid?

NANCY

No comment.  What about you?

PAULA

Jack went down on me last night.  I was trying to erase it from my memory.  Don’t ask.

I think we know an awful lot about these characters already, more than anyone you would spent this amount of time with, because, as I said, we are writing in a distilled universe – we don’t have a lot of time here.  And they’re kind of fun and honest, self-deprecating, qualities I generally find appealing in people I meet.  Women are always a little more accessible than men.

In PART TWO,  we’ll put some some story in, and see  how these women react.   I have to figure out a better way to write dialog in this blog box.

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2 thoughts on “How to write a character – Part one

  1. I find repetition interesting in a character. Not that they say the same lines, per se… like Walter does in The Big Lebowski, but that their manner of speaking has a repetitive shape or tonality. This is particularly interesting when they encounter a character who doesn’t speak in any noticeably repetitive way. And it backs up my belief that most people DON’T actually have much characteristic aspects in real life… they tend to drone. “Some weather we’re havin’, ain’t it?”

  2. In movies, there’s not a lot of time for small talk. The clock is always ticking.

    But the real reason that there is no small talk in movies is that the movies are not reality. They are a heightened reality full of, as I said, distilled characters. When I was a kid, I always wondered why you never saw characters go to the bathroom in films. But imagine if your memory was filled up with the million memories of yourself going to the bathroom. It’s just not that important (unless, of course, it’s important to the story). So in a film, you just skip that stuff, and you just write the parts that you need. Think of it like this: you’re taking a life, cutting out all the boring shit, and hopefully what’s left is interesting.

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