by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Some of the greatest films ever made have been character studies. Sure, there is a well-structured story sitting just below the surface that allows us to develop the character in meaningful and interesting ways. However, the purpose and driving force behind the story is to explore what it means to live inside someone else’s skin, which is another way to investigate what it means to be human. Far too many stories fail because they are based on a clever concept but feature paper-thin characters who lack any sort of dimension. One of the best methods for creating a powerful story that audiences will empathize with is to begin with a juicy character. Some writers follow the discipline of writing ten pages about their protagonist and the character’s backstory before they ever even begin the outlining or story development process. If you have an idea for a truly great character and believe that you sincerely understand who that person is, here are ten ways to take them into the plot of a powerful narrative.
1. THE BIO
Certainly, one of the simplest ways to take a character you’ve developed to the screen is to use the elements from their biography to create the structure of your story. Your character’s biography should include the most significant moments from their life. Taking one of these moments to create your entire plot from can make for a great story. A word of caution, however: this doesn’t always work well. Many times there are things about the character that we need to know as a writer that we should never reveal to the audience. At best, we should only allude to them. A Beautiful Mind is one example of using a character’s biography in order to develop the story around them.
2. THE BACKTORY
The backstory is sometimes called the ghost. This is because it refers to a person or event in the character’s past that still haunts them. Taking this person or event and crafting the entire plot around explaining the impact and exact details surrounding it can make for powerful storytelling. Remember, we don’t need to understand everything that happened in a character’s past to understand who they are. A good rule of thumb can be to tell us much more about much less. A History of Violence is an excellent example of this technique.
3. THE SECRET
If you have developed a character that will be engaging to your audience, one method that can expand who they are into a story is to give them a secret. It could be something they are ashamed of, such as a murder. It could also be something positive, such as the character who hides their fortunes in order to make sure those who love them do so for the right reasons. Coming to America uses this method to great success.
4. THE WEAKNESS
Great characters will have an Achilles heel. Often, the entire plot of your story can be built around this. Sometimes the weakness will be a secret that no one else knows. Other times, the weakness is clearly known to everyone and the character must bear the burden of trying to succeed despite this. Even characters as pure as Superman have their kryptonite. Many times, a character’s weakness is their family, because this is so universally relatable. Aaron Paul’s character is a perfect example of someone with this weakness on Hulu’s The Path.
5. THE PASSION
Seeing a character really care about something is an effective way to drive audiences toward empathizing with them. Stories work best when our protagonist really wants something. The plot can then center around the lengths the character will go to get it. Seeing Michael B. Jordan’s passion for boxing in Creed causes us to want to follow his story, wherever it goes.
6. THE QUESTION
A character’s passion may lead them to a question they absolutely must see answered. This especially works well in adventure stories or tales about detectives. However, this technique can also work well across dramas. Philomena and Woman in Gold are both stories about characters driven to answer a singular question.
7. THE PERSON
If you’ve built the bio for a truly interesting character, we will know something about who they love and would be willing to sacrifice for. Creating a story about this character then having to fight for that love or sacrifice for that person can be heart-warming and even nerve-wracking. Katniss being willing to risk her own life so her sister will be spared is the catalyst for the entire Hunger Games series.
8. THE UNEXPECTED
One interesting exercise to put your character through is to ask, “What’s the most unexpected thing that could happen to them?” Another way to set this scenario up is to ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to my unique character?” For example, if your character is a 60-year-old woman who has become a pizza delivery driver, but also owes money to the mob – who will be the one group she doesn’t want to have to deliver a pizza to? Walking into a room, holding a pizza, only to face the people you’ve been trying to avoid, would be the last thing that character would expect. Having a sorority move in to the house next door while he’s trying to sell his own home is the last thing Seth Rogen expects in Neighbors 2.
9. THE OPPORTUNITY
If we know a character’s passion, seeing them get the opportunity to put that passion to the test can be a powerful way to bring that character to the screen. Seeing an athlete have the opportunity to play in the big game, seeing the loser have the opportunity to go to the prom with the person of their dreams, and seeing the poor servant get the opportunity to rule the kingdom are all ways that characters have been given opportunities that made for great stories. Notting Hill features two characters who both get unexpected opportunities.
10. THE DECISION
When a character gets an opportunity, it usually isn’t without consequence. Watching someone be forced to make a decision between two extremely compelling or less than compelling options is one way to develop that character and create plot around them. For example, in Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan’s character must choose between her life and family in Ireland and the new opportunities and relationships in America.
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.