by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The ability to construct an interesting character can make or break a story. The two most popular methods are taking a very ordinary person and thrusting them into an extraordinary world, like was done in 13 Hours, or taking a very extraordinary person and thrusting them into the ordinary world, like was done in Anomalisa. Regardless of which approach your story calls for, there are techniques for building your character that will facilitate deeper conflict and higher stakes. Here are five pieces of material to use when constructing your Frankenstein.
1. PHYSICAL MATERIAL
Perhaps the most obvious material to use when constructing a character is the physical elements that give them their appearance. This material might not be necessary for every character, but it is often an opportunity to create interest in the mind of the audience or to make the character unique. Elijah Price is far more interesting in Unbreakable because he is in a wheel chair. His physical appearance connects to his backstory, which makes the creative choice feel organic as opposed to random.
Her enemies never see Susan Cooper coming in Spy. This is thanks to her physical appearance, which also provides lots of comedic opportunity, as Cooper’s exterior is not what we expect for an international spy. It’s easy to randomly assign physical attributes to a character in order to make them more interesting. However, physical material is most successful when it is tied to another one of the materials – psychological, backstory, desire, or detail.
2. PSYCHOLOGICAL MATERIAL
This material can be tricky. It’s a slippery slope trying to reveal what a character is thinking or who they are on the inside. James Donovan must maintain a certain psychological demeanor when dealing with Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. We only begin to understand what he really thinks of Abel and how his inner psychology is functioning as he interacts with his wife and colleagues. Revealing psychology through dealings with other characters can be a clever way to tell us about a character.
However, you must avoid the snare of allowing your character to easily state what’s going on inside them through dialogue. Show us what your character is thinking. Avoid just telling us. Often the psychological material we use to build a character comes out of a flaw or fear. Mark Baum’s motivations are born of his imperfections in The Big Short. This is slowly revealed through the character’s actions over the course of the story as opposed to being told to the audience through a few lines of dialogue.
3. BACKSTORY MATERIAL
What a character experienced before your story begins is the key to developing a “ghost” for the character. Having an issue or event haunt that character gives them motivation they are likely not to want to discuss. This presents a challenge for the writer but is more rewarding for the audience when they discover what has been plaguing the character throughout the narrative. P.L. Travers is reluctant to make changes to her beloved Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks. It’s not until much later we discover that her reasons involve things that happened long before the story being told began. Furiosa is “haunted” in a similar fashion in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Many writers will write pages of backstory for a character that never make it in to the narrative they are crafting. The reason behind such an exercise is for the creator to truly get to know the creation. Characters are made multi-dimensional only when the writer knows the character and their history, both inside and out.
4. DESIRE MATERIAL
Knowing what a character wants is essential if an audience is to engage your story. Establishing what they need should be revealed over the course of their internal journey, but knowing what they want should be established early on. In Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo simply desires to keep working while expressing his beliefs. His desire reveals to us his character. It reveals who he is internally. It tells us much about his psychology and perhaps even his backstory.
Carol Aird desires Therese Belivet in Carol. Her desire, however, doesn’t just reveal to us a sexual preference. It reveals a longing for a life she cannot have in her current culture and situation. In this case, her desire reveals the conflict of the story. The more intensely a character wants something, the higher the audience’s sense of engagement will be. The more they are willing to sacrifice to have it, the greater our empathy will be.
5. DETAILED MATERIAL
Crafting details about a character takes precision and nuance. Knowing what particulars reveal more of who the character is as opposed to simply communicating more information should be in the wheelhouse of an experienced storyteller. Ted Cole gives a wonderful monologue about the importance of a tennis shoe brand in The Door in the Floor in order to demonstrate the importance of detail when constructing a character. Jim in The Revenant carries a dented canteen. This detail becomes a crucial plot point later in the story. A flourish of blood, on a white helmet, from the fingers of a dead storm trooper, help us follow the story of the character who will later become Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Combining the elements of physical traits, psychological material, backstory, desire and details, you can bring a character to life. But remember, human beings don’t always act rationally. They aren’t constructed like formulas. It’s important to surprise the audience with irony, unexpected choices, and brokenness. We are more than the sum total of our parts. Your characters should be as well.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.