HIS-TORY & HER-STORY: DEVELOPING YOUR CHARACTERS
Do you need to come up with a complete history of your character before you start writing your story? Of course not, but! One of the main complaints readers/audiences have with characters are that they seem flat, cliché, undeveloped. So, how do you avoid this when writing your characters? As the great Sun Tzu would say, know your enemy…or in this case, know your character. So, what better way to get to know your character, than to create their history? But you’ve already done that you say? I mean, your character is a hardnosed detective who doesn’t like authority, only plays by his rules and works alone. That’s all you need to know, right?
First off, if you’ve ever described a character of yours like that, go ahead and pick up your laptop, walk over to the wall and smash it into a thousand pieces. If you write with a pen or pencil…well, throw it away I guess. My point is, if you want to write three dimensional characters, you have to create a three dimensional history. How far into the 3D realm you go is up to you. What do I mean by 3D? I mean create your characters life up to the point that you are dropping them into your story. Where they were born, how many siblings they have, did they have a good relationship with their parents, what are their hobbies, have they ever had a broken heart, you get the point. This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive biography, all you need are bullet points along the characters life line, but the more in depth you know your character, the better you will write him or her…or “IT” if it’s some alien creature that’s a stowaway on a NASA ship as it travels back to Earth, unknowingly bringing along a creature that has a insatiable lust for attention, who also has the ability to shape change and ends up going to Hollywood to become a star of stage and screen, but first, before all the success, “IT,” has to trudge the foot worn trail stomped through Hollywood by so many would be actors and actresses who came before. IT gets a job as a waiter, and then IT uses nearly its entire check to pay rent on a studio apartment that’s smaller than the box the alien stowed away in on the NASA ship. At night IT reads books on acting, written by the greatest minds in the business and others books on how to appear human written by multiple studio heads. While IT spends it’s time alone reading and practicing its new found love for the craft of acting, it snacks on gummy bears, its new favorite food out of all the earthly victuals, even better than human flesh. And more….
You get the point. You’re basically creating a trail of bread crumbs that begins where the character does and ends where the character arrives in your story. Now for the big questions: WHY???
Now, pay close attention because this is the key! When you write a character, you have to become the character. You have to shrink yourself down to microscopic size, shove yourself into the mind of your character, un- shrink and not just take over; you have to be that character. You have to think, talk and act like the character. So, how does knowing history of the character benefit the story? A characters history is like the hands that make the puppet dance on the strings. History is the descendent of current events. Action, speech, emotion, basically everything that constitutes a person is based on their knowledge and experiences from the past and present. So how is this useful? It happens in tiny ways. I’ll give you an example.
Some years ago, I had an idea for a new screenplay. I had the story all outlined from beginning to the end. But before I started, I decided to write a brief, simple history of each of the main characters. Kate is the lead. Before I started the script, I knew that Kate was a beautiful girl, mid 20’s, smart, worked as a photographer for the New York Times, yet had a longing to be a reporter. That was the basic stuff. But I wanted to know more about Kate, so when I jumped into her skin, I’d be able to more easily become her, so I could react to any situation Kate was in, the way Kate would, and not as I would. So, I made bullet points about her life and interests, but they weren’t just words on a page, they meant something. Here is a small example:
*KATE LOVES TO LISTEN TO STORIES: But that wasn’t just an arbitrary interest for Kate. Kate loved to listen to stories because her mom used to read to her when she was a little girl. Her father was dead and her mother was all Kate had. Those story times were not only about entertainment, they were bonding moments between mother and daughter.
When it came time to write the script, I had all of this subconscious information about Kate, and my other main characters, floating in the back of my mind. So when it came time to introduce Kate and her very elderly neighbor woman Mrs. Gill, an organic situation arose. I had given Mrs. Gill a history of working on airplanes during the Rosie the Riveter era. This bit of her history created an opportunity in the script and two points of historical information connected. Kate and Mrs. Gill struck up a deal. Kate would come by a few times a week and bring the old woman Butterfinger candy bars (The old woman’s favorite) in return the Mrs. Gill would tell Kate stories from her past. This relationship gave depth to the characters and created humorous dialogue for their scenes together. Their background also made the characters more relatable and real to the audience. I’ve since sold that screenplay titled “The Middle Man,” now titled “One Day in Heaven,” and the relationship between Kate and the old woman is one of my favorites.
Half of what you create for your character’s history will never be seen by your audience…and that’s ok. It’s all for your benefit, so while you’re wearing your characters skin, you’ll know how to act and react in any situation. Knowing your character will help you to keep YOUR personality from interfering with the character you’re writing. It will help keep your characters distinct so they don’t sound alike. This will also provide your story with depth, because the characters in the story have depth. You’ll be amazed by the dialogue or scene ideas that arise because you know your characters so well, and when they combine in your story it’s like a chemical reaction, an explosion of creativity will occur, and you can harness the fallout and use it in your project for the entire world to read. So, there it is, my advice on character development. Thanks for reading. See ya next time. I’m History!