Create Characters Who Intrigue, Entice and Challenge the Reader
Creating a novel, a short story or a screenplay starts with your character. Not the plot. Even crime fiction and crime movies these days are much more character-driven, however much they need strong plotting.
And everything about storytelling is based on one overriding premise which I call Emotional Pull. How you spellbind the reader or audience into an irresistible involvement with your characters and keep them entranced by that magic till the end of the story – and beyond – is to arouse, provoke, intrigue, disturb, excite, and exhilarate them.
Emotional Pull is what powers the story. It’s what forces your characters to do what they do, when they do it – and why. It determines how you tell the story, the narrative impetus, the dramatic journey, how it moves and breathes, how it rises and falls in tension, how it climaxes, and how it ends. It pulls two ways. It exerts its power on the people of the story, and in turn, it pulls the reader into the story.
Talk to Your Characters
Put your characters on the spot, challenge them with outrageous suggestions, shout at them, get them to speak back to you with urgency and rage. This creates a wonderfully fruitful tension between you and can spark some great pointers to dialogue. Think of your relationship as something alive and moving and growing.
You don’t create unforgettable characters already formed. Allow them to grow organically and they’ll surprise you. The best revelation of character is when it’s s-l-o-w. Every now and then, the surface slightly ripples and another layer is revealed.
So, as well as the usual list you’ll find in writing handbooks on character – age, birth order, appearance, childhood memories, friends etc, you need to go deeper. Explore the inner life. Play around with ideas that focus on the psychological elements of your character. What could be the inner motivations which drive them to do what they do, behave the way they do? What do they want, which is compelling them to act – or, perhaps more importantly, compelling them not to act? What’s stopping them from getting what they want? What is your character’s passion?
How does your character express emotions?
– Anger, pleasure, cynicism, joy, fear, silence ?
How does your character register tension and stress?
– By a physical gesture/expression? Silence? Talking too much?
One of the best ways to explore what makes your character tick, is to pose questions and imagine how your character answers. Think of your character as someone you really want to get to know deeply.. And listen to how they talk. Visualise what they look like. Do they want to tell you to shut up? The essence of this character workout is curiosity
Ask your character:
– What’s your strongest memory? Sad? Happy? Why do you think it has stayed with you so powerfully? How does it feeling when you remember it now?
– What makes you cry? Or don’t you?
– What makes you laugh? Who’s your favourite comedian?
– Do you giggle at silly jokes?
– What do you fear the most? Not things like spiders, but a deep-seated fear. Can you think about where that comes from? [This might throw up some ideas for your character’s motivation]
– Has anyone ever betrayed you? How? What did you feel about that experience? What do you feel about that experience now? [Again, could this be strong driver of the plot.]
– Have you ever betrayed anyone? How? What do you feel then? And what do you feel about that now?
– If you could be granted one wish what would it be?
– If you could undo one thing you did in your life, what would it be?
– Do you hate anyone?
– Have you ever been in love? Are you in love now? Or have been once? Have loved and lost?
– Have/want to have children?
– Anything that keeps you awake at night?
– What do you want most in the world? What is preventing from that being fulfilled?
Your Character’s Emotional Needs
Then start thinking about your character’s emotional needs and why they are not being met. This is key. They will show where the story’s going and this will help you to structure the plot more than anything. The emotional plot will be a subterranean engine driving the surface plot. Perhaps the character won’t be aware they have these needs at all? Even when a character does not know what they want, they can be subconsciously motivated to take certain actions to find out. Is there anyone your character knows who perceives the emotional needs although the character doesn’t? How will your reader recognise these needs when the character doesn’t? This last is to do with dramatic irony, one of the most powerful techniques of all writing. Basically it’s: What does the reader know that the character doesn’t? Dramatic irony makes for terrific opportunities to weave tension and suspense into the character’s story.
Backstory – Make It Power Your Emotional Plot
Backstory has to be not only about external events, but mostly about the emotional past life of a character because the story being told in this story now is driven by impulses already set in motion. Don’t take the lazy way – don’t pluck a character ‘peg’ out of the air and hook it onto your character. You know the kind of thing – ‘hard-boiled, cynical cop likes ballet’.
Write some scenes from your character’s past: in the school playground, as a teenager. How does your character behave? Then to make secondary characters help define your main character (they absolutely MUST do), write scenes as though the other characters in the story inhabit the main character’s backstory. How does your character behave with others? Shy? or are they the ‘leader’?
Creating a powerful emotional pull will not only help to make your character intriguing and unforgettable, it will automatically guide you in every other element of storytelling – the way you orchestrate the story’s plot, structure and pace but also it will go a long way to generate dialogue that is alive, dynamic, full of tension and power – and individual to the character.
Pauline is a screenwriter, script editor, author and award-winning playwright, as well as a Shakespeare filthyshakespeare1scholar and former journalist. Her most recent book Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns (Quercus) was an Observer Book of the Year. She has written five screenplays, including one commissioned by an independent Hollywood producer which is now in development, and another by a young UK company