How to Create a Compelling Character: The Archive

Forget what I said yesterday, this is the real backbone of the book.  The introduction of this story became the opening of the book and the conclusion became the conclusion.  This one was calling out for an archive because the original posts were written out of order and re-numbered later, making them a nightmare to read the way Blogger had them sorted.  Lots of interesting stuff here: It’s fascinating how late in the process the Moment of Humanity arrived.  

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: More Thoughts on the Moment of Humanity

The original piece for this was here, but I keep expanding the definition, so I thought it was time for a re-write.

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on your hero’s head until he or she is ready to stand up and do something about it.

But you can’t assume that we’ll automatically bond with your hero and choose to identify with him or her just because we’re told to. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your hero, for all the reasons listed in the Laws.

We won’t go anywhere with your hero until he or she wins us over. Logically, we know that this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment that the audience forgets that this is fiction, and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms.

Funny: Usually, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, His Girl Friday, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to put-upon characters who are too scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: how can it be possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? The answer is that it takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes”: something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes. Here are two contrasting examples:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice has quickly been defined by her meekness (feeling nervous in the elevator surrounded by taller officers, meekly withdrawing from the room where they’re discussing the Buffalo Bill killings) and humbleness (saying “Yes, sir” a lot), and she’s clearly intimidated by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about throwing up gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “Save the Cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience, because most of us don’t go around saving cats, so it’s hard to identify with someone who does. As a result, the best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Hard-bitten bounty hunter Clint Eastwood has just toughed it out on a crawl across a desert with a perpetual nasty sneer on his face in the opening scene of For a Few Dollars More, but when he finally finds a little pool of water, he reluctantly lets his dog drink first. This is a clear-clut “save the cat” moment, but it works because it’s out of character. If this was a character who clearly spent his life helping dogs, we wouldn’t like him as much.
  • Likewise, Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. Again, if he had stolen the bread for the kids, that would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
  • Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally-disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary, because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in “The Hunger Games”, because she feels that she’s already hardened herself, and doesn’t want her more-innocent sister to lose her humanity as well, whether or not she survives the games.
An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You”. We now love this guy.
  • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices. Why is this whitebread Indiana kid pretending to be Italian?
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines himself to a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality. 
  • Ted on “How I Met Your Mother” describes to a girl in a bar his whole imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the titular hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience was ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In this case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I’d see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this guy/gal” before they give up and tune out.

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: The Character Must Feel Compelled to Let People Know About His or Her Unique Perspective, One Way or Another

This is a brand-new one, and one I never ran by you guys before putting in the book, but I synthesized various pieces I wrote before and realized I needed to add this one.
I’ve written about how heroes need to have a lot of personality, and I wrote a whole series about how each hero must be surrounded by characters that sorely lack the hero’s most valuable quality. I’ve also written about how the hero can’t just agree with everybody, and how taking good advice is never as strong as rejecting bad advice.

…But somehow, even with all of that advice, I still found myself creating characters that are too flat. I finally realized that, no matter how uniquely valuable the hero is, or how much personality her or she exuded when spoken to, it needed something more: A hero must feel compelled to insert his or her personality into everyday situations.

Another way to put this is that the hero must have an active personality, not a passive personality. It’s not enough to stand out from the crowd simply as a counterexample. Most heroes should feel compelled to point out the flaws of those around them, either loudly or quietly (and sometimes just in muttered asides).

Let’s data-mine, shall we? In each of the 15 movies we’ve looked at, does the hero feel compelled to let others know that they lack his or her most valuable quality?

In 8 of the movies, the answer is a resounding yes. The heroes of Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, and In a Lonely Place have a razor-sharp rapier wit, Jack in The Shining is a snapping, snarling beast, and the heroes of Groundhog Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Iron Man are all sarcastic in a blunt-but-witty way.

But those are all men, so what about the women? All four female heroes were less vocal about their disagreements than those eight men. Are the women compelled to let others know how their perspective?
  • Alien: Sort of. She’s very hesitant to speak up at first, to the degree that we don’t even guess she’s the ultimate hero. She lets herself be steamrolled over when she tries to maintain quarantine, for instance…but she gradually becomes more and more assertive as she grows into her hero role.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Yes, but very respectfully. She’s very deferential to her mentor Crawford, but she cannot resist correcting him about his recollection of the grade he gave her. He then recalls that she confronted him in that class about the Bureau’s record on civil rights. These moments happen just when we’ve just begun to worry that she’ll be too meek to invest our hopes in. We let out a little “Whew!” because we’ve been reassured that this hero is at least a little vocally assertive, which is all we really need.
  • An Education: Yes, in a snide-mumbled-aside kind of way.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes, in a petulant-mumbled-aside kind of way.
Obviously there are heroines that we didn’t look at here that are just as loudly willful as men, such as Vasquez in Aliens, or the title character in Juno, but it’s notable that heroines, as a rule, tend to be quieter.
But hey, that still leaves three additional male heroes from our checklist roadtests that aren’t really inclined to speak up for themselves:
  • Jeffrey in Blue Velvet is even more polite and softspoken than the ladies listed above. He certainly has qualities that those around him lack, but he’s in no hurry to let them know that out loud. His roiling internal contradictions become clear to us through his shocking actions, not because he speaks up to share his unique point of view.
  • The title character in Donnie Brasco also lacks a forceful personality. This is in fact the secret of his success: his ability to blend into the background. He mostly keeps his own counsel until directly confronted.
  • The hero of The Bourne Identity is reluctant to speak up, but quick to act, so he’s assertive in his own way.
So verbal assertiveness isn’t universal but it’s very common, and it’s a huge part of sympathy. If your hero lacks it, then you need to be aware that this is somewhat unusual, and that must therefore be a key part of the character’s personality. But as a general rule, let your heroes crack wise, whether loudly or quietly.

How To Create A Compelling Character, Addendum: One Quick Shortcut To Finding A Character’s Voice

As I wrote about here, I tried to “road-test” some of my ideas this summer, and ran into a few bumps. For me, the hardest part of writing is creating a character’s unique voice, so I’ve been focused on that since the beginning of the blog. In my How To Create A Compelling Character posts, I came up with several ways to do this…

…But what I’ve discovered is that, while these categories are very useful for honing my characterization later on in the process, they’re less useful when I’m just starting to create a character from scratch. Before I’ve put the character into actual situations on the page, it’s hard to pre-determine what their metaphor family, default personality trait, default argument strategy, etc., will be.

Part of the problem is that, in a first draft, the characters are inevitably forced to serve the plot, and only in later drafts do the characters become strong enough that they can force the plot to serve them. In this tug-of-war, your characters will attempt to act logically and de-escalate their conflicts, while you try to drag them against their will into an escalating sequence of crises.

Once you and your characters have reached a compromise that satisfies their desire to act logically and your desire to make things happen, then you can start shrinking and de-emphasizing your plot while you enrich and deepen your characterization. But if you load down each major character with a dozen traits before you start writing the first draft, they’ll be too obstinate, and defeat your desire to fire things up.

What I’ve discovered is that I can’t really lock down all my character’s traits until I’m at least half-way through the first draft. This is where writers tend to enter the “second-act doldrums”, and you lose sight of what you originally wanted to say. If you find yourself flagging, then you can re-read what you have, discover who your characters actually are, and sharpen them until you know how to proceed with the rest of the script.

But in the meantime, how do you get started? Over the years, I’ve tried two separate tricks: One is that I would imagine an actor playing the part who has a strong “voice” that he or she brings to each movie: Robert Downey Jr., Robert DeNiro, Sigourney Weaver, Tina Fey, etc. This gives me a strong voice that I can hear in my head, but the problem, of course, is that this is a derivative voice, drawn from other movies and not from real life.

Another method I’ve used is to picture someone I actually know. This connects me back to the real world and gives me a deep well of unique and non-cliché behavior to tap into, but it quickly becomes a problem: these “real world” characters keep resisting me, saying “I would never say that” or “I would never do that.” It’s hard to imagine what your best friend would do after the robot apocalypse, except run and hide.

But I had a breakthrough when I split the difference. Now, if I want to dive right into writing, even though I’m not ready to define every trait of my character, I simply imagine a voice that combines a famous persona with someone I actually know.

For instance, I defined one character as [Will Farrell] + [my beloved, crazy old manager from Papa John’s who lived in his van in the parking lot]. My old manager gave the character a unique world-view and sympathetic, un-clichéd flaws, but adding in Will Farrell made him a bolded, wilder, and funnier. In a matter of minutes, I could hear the voice of this unique new character talking in my head, and I was off to the races.

    How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: What Are the Rules They Live By?

    The original purpose of these “compelling character” pieces was to eliminate the hundreds of questions (Where did their grandfather go to college?) that some writers feel they have to answer about their characters, and boil it down to a small number.  But that number just keeps growing!  

    Nevertheless, as I was working on the rewrite I just finished, I kept realizing that, through I had answered all my core questions about each character, I still didn’t know them well enough.  Then I realized: most of my questions are about knowing my heroes externally.  The questions are focused on what I think of my characters, not on what my characters think of themselves

    Then I tried asking a question I’d never asked before and it did wonders for my rewrite: What are the rules they live by?  Every character has these, though most don’t state them out loud, as John Wayne does in The Shootist:
    • “I won’t be wronged; I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.”
    One problem I had with my script is that my characters, who all went to college together and had the same job, just weren’t differentiated enough.  This turned out to be a great way to differentiate them.  Here’s what I came up with:

    This helps me love my characters, and it also helps me polarize them in a non-judgmentalway.  As you can see, I tried to force myself to stick to what they people would actually say if asked.  Nothing like “I can’t stand dirt”, or “I don’t like kids”, or “Never get off the couch”  Those may be rules that actuallydefine a character, but the purpose of this exercise is to get to know their self-image. 

    Once you’ve got your rules, you can start playing with them.  Which rules are they forced to break over the course of the story?  Which ones should they break but are too proud to do so?  Which rules are they just deluding themselves about, since they’ve never really followed them? 

    The advantage of listing these rules is that they force you to listen to your characters and allow them to define themselves.  It’s easy for a character to become just a bundle of flaws: a false goal, a false statement of philosophy, a limited perspective and a long host of ironic failings.  But they don’t know that.  They’re just living their life, doing their own thing in their own time, so you need to know what that thing is, as they see it.  

    How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: Add A Moment of Humanity

    Note: Ive updated and expanded this post here.
    Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so you want to hit the ground running: clarify who your hero is right away, then quickly establish their long-standing problem, their new opportunity, and the unforeseen conflict it causes, so that you can get into the heat of your story.   

    But great characters should not merely fulfill their role in your story.  You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will convince the audience that this character is more than just a plot device.

    The moment of humanity can take different forms:
    • An out-of-character moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. 
    • A unique-but-universal moment, that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen onscreen before.
    • An oddball moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the movie. 
    When I was doing The First 15 Minutes Project, I asked for every movie “What’s the Moment We Realize We Love This Guy?”  In retrospect, the answer was usually the Moment of Humanity, so let’s look at those again:
    • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice’s default personality trait is her humbleness, and in her first dialogue scene she’s awed by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved. 
    • The 40 Year Old Virgin: In this case, it’s the first shot, of Andy trying to pee with a morning erection, certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see onscreen.  (Another moment comes later, when Andy cleans up at the poker game, giving us a much needed brief moment of easy triumph for this very weak character.)
    • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the perp if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.  It’s not a crack in the façade, but it’s certainly an oddball choice that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the script, and that’s enough.
    • Mickey in The Fighter:  Once again, this is an overly humble character who finally shows a moment of pride, when Charlene the bartender goads him into it.
    • Casablanca: This is an interesting case, in that Rick is nothing but contradictions: tough but self-deprecating, feared but merciful, lacking in morals but strictly ethical… Rick is the most complex and least plot-driven character on the list.  He’s nothing but friction.
    • Modern Times: Right away, we get a unique-but-universal moment, when the tramp is working the assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose. 
    • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices.  Why is this whitebread Indiana kid  pretending to be Italian?  
    I could go on, but I’ll stop there.  Obviously this is one of the most subjective and hard-to-nail-down rules, but it’s still worth thinking about.  In addition to establishing your character’s goals and flaws, do you give them a little moment to stop pushing the plot forward and show a little unvarnished humanity?

    How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: Determine Their Default Strategy

    Before you write a script, there’s nothing harder than figuring out in advance how each character will talk.  It’s tempting to wait until you’re actually writing and let the characters themselves “speak” to you.  The problem with this is that there’s too much danger that they’ll all use the same voice.

    It’s better to ensure beforehand that each character will have a unique voice, but how do you define something that elusive? In previous pieces, I broke the concept down into two qualities:

    • Metaphor Family: some aspect of their life that determines which metaphors, curses and exclamations they use.  This source might be their job, their home region, or their psychological state. 
    • Second is a concept I used to call Verbal DNA, but I’ve now changed the name to Default Personality Trait.  Characters grow and change throughout a story, and their mood can fluctuate wildly, even within each scene, but happy or sad, stunted or enlightened, they’ll still have some aspect of their personality that never changes. 
    But is that enough?  I’ve been focused a lot recently on how important it is for characters to trick and trap one another.  Now I realize that, just as it’s important that character use unique metaphors, it’s equally important that they trick and trap each other in distinctive ways.  So now I’m adding a third aspect of voice that should be pre-determined: their Default Strategy
    I identified metaphor families using “30 Rock” characters, so for default strategies, let’s look at that show’s Thursday night companion, “Community”, which thankfully returns to the air this week.  Let’s say that you’re withholding a secret from a member of the Greendale study group… How are they likely to try to get it out of you?
    1. Jeff: Traping you with the evidence of your lies in a lawyerly manner.
    2. Abed: Faux naïve questions, noticing little details and psychological “tells”
    3. Annie: Genuine naïve questions, persistently interrogating until she gets the truth.
    4. Troy: Half-heartedly attempting to lay logic traps and trap you with your own words.
    5. Shirley: Passive aggressive guilt-tripping
    6. Britta: Accusing you of hypocrisy, inconsistency, or general lack of morality.   
    7. Pierce: He doesn’t strategize, he just insults.  Not coincidentally, he’s the most unlikable character. 
    These strategies tend to have some overlap with metaphor families or default personalities: Jeff, Shirley and Britta have strategies that relate to their backgrounds (lawyer, evangelical, hippie).  Abed’s is related to his psychology (Aspergers).  Annie, Troy and Pierce, on the other hand, use strategies that match up to their default personality traits (sweet, geeky and arrogant, respectively).

    In dramas, the characters will be less broadly sketched, but still use distinctive default strategies: silence or verbosity, sexuality or piousness, logic or emotionality... Their default strategy need not be their only strategy, but it’ll be the first one they try.   

    How To Create A Compelling Character, Addendum: Why Do Their Friends Like Them?

    So I’ve been building towards something for a while... A big post. The ultimate post that sums up (and links to) almost everything I’ve said… A 70 (or so) question checklist that hopes to target and eliminate any problem with any story. That’ll finally arrive next week. It’s already been pushed back a few times because, as I’ve been preparing it, a lot of new things have occurred to me that I wanted to shoehorn in first.

    As I was combining, reviewing and expanding my earlier attempts at checklists, I realized a problem I’ve been having for a while with my character recipe. Generally speaking, I try to downplay the term “sympathetic” in favor of “compelling”, and for the most part that works. The nice thing about the “compelling” definition is that it’s wide enough to cover any main character, even anti-heroes like Norman Bates, Michael Corleone and David Chappellet. But I’ve discovered a problem: it makes characters seem a little extreme, especially if they’re supposed to be nice-guy regular heroes.

    Once you’ve piled your heroes (and villains) high with as many unfulfilled desires, internal contradictions and raging conflicts as you can, then stop and ask yourself a question: “Yeah, but why do their friends like them?” Sure, sometimes the answer will be, “they don’t.” Bates, Corleone and Chappelet don’t have any close friends. There are even some downright likable heroes who don’t have any friends: C. C. Baxter in The Apartment is adorable, but he’s totally friendless. 

    But these should be the exception, not the rule. In real life, even lonely people have friends. Even jerks have friends. As the Mr. T. Experience memorably lamented “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend.” 

    Once you’re done tensing your characters up, take a step back and remember that somebody somewhere probably likes this person, so you need to figure out why. You don’t have to agree with those friends--they could like the guy because he’s a jerk, but you have to be able to understand that point of view.

    Think about how easy it is to get annoyed by the tightly-wound creep in the next cubicle over, and then one day, an old college buddy visits him at work and he’s suddenly totally relaxed, laughing and joking and ribbing the guy about his gut. If you’re going to write about that character, or any character, you should be able to see in them what that friend sees, in addition to all of their compelling faults.

    How to Create a Compelling Character, Conclusion

    This all started with George Clooney on “ER”, and the week I spent attempting to figure out why his chaotic introduction was so compelling, even though I was going through a harrowing medical saga of my own at the time.

    The hope is that these eleven steps can help in trying make that sort of connection with an audience. If this still isn’t exactly a recipe you can use from scratch, then maybe it can at least answer the question of why some characters are so much more compelling than others.

    As some of you have guessed, I conceived these posts as the outline for a possible book, even though I had doubts about that idea—Does the world really need another screenwriting manual? But I reassured myself that it might be worth doing anyway when I thought about the different kinds of people that need to create compelling characters...

    In entertainment, it’s not just screenwriters but also directors and actors (especially if they’re starting with a weak script)... Every type of writer, from novelists to journalists to historians, whether they’re starting from scratch or re-shaping the details of an actual life... Salesmen, speechwriters, activists—anyone who’s selling their own ideas or somebody else’s… For that matter, anyone who’s ever had to write a resume or cover letter…Everybody needs to know how to transform a life story, even if it’s just their own, from a shapeless mess into a compelling narrative.

    Allow me one final example from my own story: Shortly after I began chemo, I got a chilling visit from an old college friend who had gone on to become somewhat of a big-deal doctor (Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, etc...) He took me aside and confided an unfortunate secret that he felt I needed to hear: The most important thing I could do to stay alive was to make sure my doctors remembered me, and the only way to do that was to make my story a lot more compelling than their other cases.

    Doctors, he admitted, only allow themselves to get upset if certain heart-tugging patients die (new parents, for example), and they unintentionally reserve their best care for those patients. For the rest, they quickly decide that, if this patient dies, it must just be their time.

    Why should this be so? Doctors, after all, are paid to care about everybody. And they do care, deeply…about their first fifty or sixty patients. But after that, every patient starts to seem the same: the same backstory, the same symptoms, the same complaints, the same prognosis. Worst of all, a sneaking suspicion comes over them that they care about their patients more than those patients care about themselves. Patients won’t change their lifestyles even when doctors tell them they must to survive. So doctors stop investing themselves very much in most individual cases, just to protect themselves emotionally.

    Does this sound familiar? Doctors, it turns out, are a lot like script-readers, who are also supposed to care about the manuscripts they get, but quickly get fed up with generic stories about passive protagonists who can’t even be bothered to care about their own lives—so why should anyone else?

    What I took away from this warning was that you can’t just go to the doctor’s office and “seem sympathetic”. You have to create a compelling character. Make it clear that there’s more to you than whatever their first impression was—quirky and unique details that make you memorable. Describe your symptoms using shocking new metaphors they’ve never heard before, so that they can really imagine the pain. Show them that you have a great life with a lot of goals so it’ll be especially sad if you can’t reach them. Let them know you’re motivated and resourceful—that they can trust you to take two steps for every one they take. And most importantly, constantly remind them that you’re facing a very tight (and literal) deadline, so you need them to work with impassioned urgency.

    My point is that these are good skills to have for lots of reasons. Wake a doctor up. Wake a script reader up. Wake a publisher up. Wake an audience up. Let them know that this time it’s safe for them to really care, because you have what it takes to magnetically compel them along through an emotionally satisfying journey.

    How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 4: Determine their Default Personality Trait

    I talked before about one way to determine how a character will talk: their metaphor family. That’s a great way to decide what language they will use, but now I’d like to talk about an equally important tool for creating a believable and consistent personality: Choosing a Default Personality Trait. This is a tricky topic: First I’m going to try to differentiate between three different but related aspects of a hero’s personality:
    1. Their current emotional state (changes constantly)
    2. Their philosophy (changes once)
    3. Their default personality trait (never changes)
    First of all, every character has an emotional state that changes wildly from scene to scene. As they go on the most momentous journey of their lives, they’ll quickly pass from frustration to joy to despair to triumph and everywhere in between.

    Separate from their emotional state is their philosophy. In real life, this changes gradually over many years, but movies are a little different. One of the main reasons we go to movies is to live out the fantasy that our philosophies can change all of a sudden due to one cathartic incident, as we talked about yesterday. Unlike emotional fluctuations, which happen in almost every scene, characters will engage in one big philosophical change over the course of the story: from selfish to big-hearted, from innocence to cynicism, from loner to joiner, etc…

    Because characters are in such an extreme state of flux, it’s tempting to simply declare that they have no fixed personality for the time being. After all, they’re questioning everything, so they’re hard to nail down. The danger is that “no fixed personality” quickly becomes “no personality at all”. You need to find a few hard-and-fast rules that always govern how a character talks, even as their emotional state varies and their general attitude shifts. This is their Default Personality Trait.

    Even as our emotions and attitudes change, our default personality trait stays the same. If someone’s default personality trait is “gloomy” then you’ll be able to identify that, even if they happen to be happy today, because they’ll say something like, “I’m oddly happy today,” or “I’m happy for once.” Their mood changes but it still has their default personality trait stamped on it.

    When you first meet someone, it can be hard to tell the difference between their current emotional state and their default personality trait, but it becomes obvious over time. A certain overall aspect of their personality will always shine through, no matter what their mood or their current philosophy might be. Movie characters should be the same way.

    One problem with stamping a label on someone’s default personality trait is that it often seems like a judgment—but it isn’t. No matter what the trait, it can be either sympathetic or unsympathetic. Don’t believe me? Check out this chart:
    (Hmm… I just wrote two screenplays in a row about salesmen, so I assume that that’s why I chose mostly salesman characters?) The point is: even though you’re taking your characters on an emotional roller coaster, and even though the whole point is their eventual shift in philosophy, there still needs to be some small aspect of their personality that never changes, because it’s in their DNA. That way, they’ll still seem like a real person.

    NOTE: I revised this piece in March, 2012.  Instead of “Default Personality Trait”, I used to use the term “Verbal DNA”.  (This will help explain the comments.)  I later decided that “Default Personality Trait” is more self-explanatory.