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Getting the Wood Out: Using Screenwriting Techniques to Create Great Characters

Screenwriting techniques for creating great characters.

Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head and . . . as you get older, you become more skillful in casting them.” Gore Vidal.

Let’s start with an exercise. I’m going to give you a name and I want you to imagine what she might be like. Ready?


Unless you already knew this was the original name that Margaret Mitchell gave to the character now internationally known as Scarlet O’Hara, I’m betting you didn’t come up with a spoiled, Southern belle who looks like Vivian Leigh. If you did know, I’m betting you regularly win at trivia.

Though this “rose by another name” got a more famous moniker, Mitchell did an outstanding job of creating a character that is truly unforgettable.

Nothing hurts worse, in my humble opinion, than sweating blood and words on a story, sending it out with hope and fear, and having it come back with a rejection letter that calls your characters “wooden” or “flat.” (Or get a review saying that!) Unless the intent was to write a modern Pinocchio story, this probably isn’t what you were going for. No one wants to be Geppetto, but where do we find the magic to create characters readers can’t forget?

If you believe reviews (which I do when they are in my favor!), then my characters are striking a chord with the many reviewers. I will confess that creating characters is the part I love most about writing and I have to wonder if it’s because I came at novel writing from a playwriting/screenwriting background.

Playwrights and screenwriters must create characters that aren’t tightly bound by physical descriptions, since there is no way they can know who will play which role. We must give most of our attention to what’s inside, because this is the only part of the character that we can control.

In his book, Playwriting: The Structure of Action, Sam Smiley identifies six basic character traits, from the simple-tangible to the complex-intangible, that are important to good character creation. They are: biological, physical, dispositional, motivational, deliberative, and decisive. By understanding and using these traits, you rise above simple craftsman to character magician, resulting in characters that linger after the last page is turned.

Let’s take a closer look at these traits. Biological traits are the most basic. Is my character animal, mineral, vegetable or machine? Male, female, androgynous, other? Once you know this, you can move onto the physical. Screenwriters and playwrights tend to focus more on defining characteristics, such as clothing, employment, characteristic movement, quirks and nervous habits, rather than appearance. The shadow and spirit of the character must take form, or the character may be confined to an ill-fitting frame.

I avoid words like beautiful or even assigning hair color until I know my characters better. Anyone who has read my books also knows my characters are rarely well endowed in the bosom department. My imagination is good—but not that good. 

Jean Marie Ward, from Crescent City Blues commented about my heroine from The Last Enemy, “Dani’s wry and intelligently daft point of view sucks you in from the very first paragraph. By the time she sees her hip bones for the first time in years and decides they aren’t as good as she remembers, you’re hooked . . . .”

It was Dani’s very human and all too common weakness that made the connection, that made Ward root for her to succeed against the odds.

I spend most of my time with the intangible traits, because these are where the spirit of your characters are created. It is within these traits that you discover what they want. We begin with the dispositional, defined as the “prevailing mood or life attitude.” Is the character an optimist or pessimist? Fast or slow? Reflective or impulsive? These traits are a foundation for the deeper levels of motivation and deliberation.

I took a play directing class some years back. I had to direct a 5 minute play. Two friends helped me — one blonde, one brunette. When the play was over, the professor told me he couldn’t tell them apart. They both had the same disposition, the same “prevailing” attitude. I learned a huge lesson from that, because it can happen in a book, too. Look for ways to contrast the dispositions of your main characters, and using this on supporting cast can help highlight the main characters. It doesn’t even hurt to start with a heavy hand and then dial it back to subtle in revisions. 

Motivation occurs on three levels: instinct (subconscious), emotion (semi-conscious) and sentiment (conscious). This is where what your characters wants and needs comes into play. Characters who have layers of motivation have greater depth, believability and humanity, particularly when their instinct is at odds with their sentiment.

In The Spy Who Kissed Me, Isabel’s instinct is to get as far away as possible from the really cute spy who just dove through the sunroof of her sister’s car. Only she can’t go home without her sister’s car, not if she wants to live. To add to her troubles, at a semi-conscious level, she’s aware of just how cute the really cute spy is. These conflicting emotions help fuel the humor and the suspense of their meeting, while showing the reader two things that motivate Isabel: her strong ties to her family and her “good Samaritan complex.”

Smiley teaches us that “deliberative traits refer to the quality and quantity of a character’s thoughts.” Disposition and motivation reflect your characters “living, acting, feeling, and desiring.” Deliberation is your character thinking.

This thinking should occur on two levels: expedient and ethical. Ethical thought debates the right and wrong, while expedient deals with reactions to pressures from other characters. This is where you can really connect with your readers by creating an environment where your characters can wrestle with their “human” condition. Throughout The Spy Who Kissed Me we see Isabel wrestling with what she wants—the really cute spy—and what she fears—the really cute spy and the people trying to kill them both.

But I would have failed to reach Isabel and Dani’s humanity if I hadn’t pushed through to the last level of characterization: decisive traits. It is action that is most interesting to read, action—not thinking about action—that provokes conflict. It is action that creates complications, crisis, and satisfying climaxes. All my characters had to do something or I wouldn’t be writing this article.

A word of caution here. As you are mixing up your characters, be careful of overloading them with a kaleidoscope of traits, simply for the sake of complexity. Only use the traits that matter to the story you are trying to tell. As you tell your story, you will find that some traits will rise to the top, while others will fall away or become redundant. It is important, during the rewriting process, to test your characters for the proper balance. Is your hero a proper match for your heroine? Is there some parity in what they both want? For instance, you wouldn’t want one character to have life or death at stake, while the other is worried about a job.

To help, Smiley provides a character soundness checklist that includes: volition, stature, interrelation, attractiveness, credibility, clarity, and diction.

Volition is simply the will power or the ability to act.

Stature measures the strength and intensity of your character. Male characters are especially hard for me, they make me work hard to figure out who they are and what they want. This made it particularly satisfying when Ward, from the previously mentioned review, had this to say about Matt Kirby, my heroine from The Last Enemy, “Matt Kirby takes longer to charm. The “lonesome lawman” treads perilously close to cliché until Jones turns the page and shows his past. But Jones goes beyond that to achieve something far more difficult . . . [showing] how closely hero and villain can mirror each other without ever tipping the balance in favor of the bad guy.” This tells me that, for at least one reader, I succeeded in giving Matt real, heroic stature and complexity.

Interrelation is about character interaction. How involved are they in the story and each other? Are they “on stage” enough? Do they interact appropriately with others? Are they too different to be believable? In an early version of my MIP, a reader called my character a “twit.” It hurt, but it also showed me that I needed to work on her ability to relate with the other characters and the reader.

Attractiveness has more to do with “wholeness” than beauty. Is your hero too heroic? Temper with flaws. Is your villain too villainous? Balance with a smidgen of virtue. The villain in The Last Enemy is pretty villainous, but he’s also lovesick—something we can all identify and sympathize with.

Credibility asks this question: are character motivation and outward action consistent? And never sacrifice clarity for complexity. Take time during and after key scenes for your major characters to react and reflect on what happened and how it has changed them.

Though you may think diction is not applicable to fiction writing, it is a mistake to not check to see if your characters sound the way they should. No one uses words in exactly the same way and your characters shouldn’t either. If a reader can act out your story in their minds, if you give them a well-crafted “script” and great “players,” they will stay with your story until the curtain rings down and the credits roll.

Want more information on writing your own made-up mayhem? Grab my Perilous Pauline’s QuickStart Guide to Writing Made-up Mayhem!

This is a reprint of the article published in The Rising Stars of Romance Share Secrets to Success.

© 1999-2018 Pauline B. Jones All rights reserved.

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