by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Many writers decide what format they will be working in before they ever write the first word of their story. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. Acknowledging one’s strengths and leanings toward storytelling in long-form films, serialized television and streaming formats, or non-linear virtual reality can be helpful in determining the lane of greatest opportunity.
However, for some of us, stories don’t always develop so cleanly. We may have an idea for a scenario, set up, or even just a character, and may not know exactly what form of storytelling the idea will best be served by. While the forms of storytelling contain different nuances, one of the more consistent elements is that of the character. Telling a story without any characters is difficult, if not impossible. Even when characters don’t take human form, we tend to anthropomorphize objects and animals to make them like humans. They become characters in our stories that we can relate to on some level.
Because our stories will eventually need to take on a format, it can be helpful to craft characters in such a way that they remain viable, regardless of format. Here are three principles to consider for creating characters that work in whatever form your story ends up taking.
Writing out a backstory for a character is one of the best ways a writer can actually get to know the individual personalities they are building a story around. Delving into a character’s childhood, their wounds, and the events that shaped them help us understand the psychology of the character as they move throughout the present story they are part of now.
But here’s a secret that some writers take a long time to discover — we can know things that the audience never will about a character. Our knowledge of what makes a character tick helps us determine how they make decisions and solve problems. As the audience sees the character solve these problems, there will be a natural resonance with why the character does what they are doing, even if we don’t know all the moments from their past that lead them to this point. We don’t know exactly what events resulted in Lilly hating her step father in Thoroughbreds, but we can bet that writer/director Cory Finley does.
Perfect characters are not very interesting. Audiences get bored quickly with a character that never makes mistakes, never makes bad decisions, or doesn’t have any vices. However, the flaws a character embodies cannot cause them to become flat characters, otherwise the audience can become equally bored. Even when a character seems to be pure evil, we like to have some indication of why. This helps us see them in a more complicated way. They become three-dimensional.
Heroes also need complication. A protagonist who is simply a victim of circumstances can be surprisingly unsympathetic to audiences. Everyone is aware of some of their own imperfections. There are others that we may be oblivious to, that others are keenly aware of. This is often true of the characters we create, as well. However, just because we are aware of a flaw we have doesn’t always mean we can do much about it. This frustration is universal in our human experience – a factor that always adds to the impact of our storytelling. Penelope Alvarez tries hard to be a good mother in One Day at a Time. However, she hides her new boyfriend from her children while lecturing them about honesty – a flaw we may not agree with but understand on some level.
A character who doesn’t want anything is hard to relate to. A character may have needs we understand, but desire is what makes us human. Plants and trees have needs but don’t express desire. A character who wants something is a good catalyst for any story, regardless of the format it will take.
Even with interactive storytelling, where the viewer is the protagonist, helping them understand what it is they desire in the narrative is important. That desire can be as simple as capturing ghosts or killing bad guys. Knowing what a character wants helps flesh out who the character is long before we determine how far the character is willing to go to get what they want, which comes in the plotting process.
Some writers become lazy, simply having their character tell another character what it is they want. However, when writing for a visual medium, it is important to show the audience what the character wants. Jessica Jones wants to rebuild her life after the tragic end of her brief superhero career. She doesn’t have to tell us this, we see it in every case she becomes involved with.
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 Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. 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 site, tellingabetterstory.com.