by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Characters are compelling for the same reasons we are. When we have qualities, talents, and abilities that distinguish who we are from those around us, people tend to find us interesting. Giving your characters unique abilities or superpowers is certainly one way to capture the attention of the audience. However, most times this only works if you are writing in a specific genre or creating a certain type of story. We often overlook the fact that there are qualities that are unique but not TOO unique in people we encounter everyday. Here are five qualities that can give your character an upgrade in the personality department.
1. THE CRACKERJACK – The Ability to Crack Things
Most of us are fascinated by someone who can pick a lock or solve a difficult puzzle. The ability to do so usually indicates years of experience, training, or preparation. We enjoy seeing those years pay off as it gives us hope that our own experiences have prepared us for the difficulties we will have to maneuver through in life. In The Goonies, Mikey and his crew crack riddle after riddle to eventually uncover the treasures of One Eyed Willy. Sherlock Holmes made a career, not to mention many wonderful adventures, out of solving difficult puzzles.
Less obvious, however, is Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who goes to great lengths to solve his own mystery. Quentin in Paper Towns does the same, interpreting clue after clue to track down his beloved Margo.
2. THE FIXER – The Ability To Fix or Repair Things
Similar to the ability to crack things, the ability to fix things reassures us that training and preparation pay off in the end. All of us know and likely admire someone who is good with his or her hands. It could be an aunt who you call when your car breaks down or a brother that understands the ways of the latest Windows operating system. Often equally valuable are those who know how to fix situations. There are those who can offer just the right words to us when our hearts are broken and pillars of wisdom who can navigate us through the most wicked of life’s labyrinths.
Winston Wolfe shows up in Pulp Fiction telling Vincent and Jules that he’s there to help and if they listen to him, they might all get out of the situation alive. In Sling Blade, Karl Childers shares his ability to repair lawnmowers as well as broken homes. Sometimes, what needs repair is inside us, however. Ray Kinsella repairs a number of broken relationships, including his own, in Field of Dreams. Grace dedicates her life to repairing the broken lives of kids in a group home in Short Term 12.
3. THE GREASE MAN – The Ability to Get Out of Tight Fixes
Some people have the ability to seemingly escape any situation. They are smooth talkers who can maneuver through life’s most difficult obstacle courses with grace and ease. Whether relying on their brain, their brawn, or both, these characters always have a solution when things seem impossible. Ethan Hunt personifies this in the Mission Impossible films. Danny Ocean does the same in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. James Bond is perhaps the most well known of the grease men. In films such as From Russia With Love, Bond demonstrates there is likely no fix he can’t find his way out of. Maya and Dan make their way through the direst of circumstances to eventually capture Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Demonstrating that the grease man doesn’t solely exist in the action genre, Mark Zuckerberg performs verbal gymnastics to get out of tight fix after tight fix in The Social Network.
4. NEVER IN DOUBT – Extreme Confidence
Most of us try to make sure our confidence level floats somewhere around where our actual ability level is. When characters let this balance slide to one extreme or another, the results are dramatic, and often comedic. In Vacation, Clark Griswold (and now his son Rusty, in the newest version of the series) is often wrong but never in doubt. He makes error after error. But what truly makes these predicaments funny is the confidence he barrels into every situation with. Michael Scott, of the TV classic The Office, is another fine example of a character whose confidence creates chaos all around him. However, Scott never seems too bothered by his own track record of calamities. Airplane! is a film full of humorous characters with extreme confidence issues. As is Leslie Nielsen’s Naked Gun series. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris proves that extreme confidence isn’t only for the buffoon. Gladiator and Philomena both offer dramatic lead characters with extreme confidence, proving this quality can be a basis for more than humor.
5. THE DOUBTING THOMAS – An Extreme Lack of Confidence
Much the opposite of Mr. Never In Doubt, The Doubting Thomas creates drama with his extreme lack of confidence. Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin makes a lack of confidence compelling, and of course humorous. Peter Bretter does the same in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. More subtly, lead characters in Adventureland, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Never Been Kissed give us compelling stories of those who overcome their extreme lack of confidence.
In Superbad, Seth and Evan openly discuss their confidence issues and how they plan to overcome them, hoping to become “some girl’s mistake.” Often times, we become privy to what caused a knock out blow to the character’s confidence. In The Wedding Singer, the first act of the film is dedicated to the backstory behind why Robby suffers with confidence issues. All of us experience doubt in ourselves, it’s only when this doubt affects a character’s life in a way that causes chaos and conflict that we can use it to develop who that character is and how they can change.
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.