The key is writing characters that – crucially – fascinate…
Writing great, multi-dimensional characters is one of the hardest – and most important – facets to successful screenwriting.
The Holy Grail of characterization – beyond writing empathetic characters, or entertaining characters, or even original characters – is writing fascinating characters. When one examines lists of the greatest TV and film characters, those that fascinate are very well represented indeed.
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“Everything changes. There’s a deep irony at the very heart of truly fascinating characters. Culturally, especially in the post-modern world, stasis is seen as boring. We are all continuously told that in story, characters must arc.
They must change.
Change is good, right?
Change means lessons learned, relationships healed, redemption gained. But here’s a perverse fact: change is ordinary. It’s the rule, not the exception.
The philosopher Heraclitus summed it up best in two words of Ancient Greek: “panta rhei” – everything changes. So, counter-intuitively, it’s actually change that is boring, whether it’s for good or bad.
To be genuinely interesting, to swim against the tide, to fascinate, a character needs either to:
- stay exactly the same, or (the main exception)
- become the character who does not change (the origin story, which means we must either already know, or be confident that we’re going to get to see, what they “become”).
Our lives of quiet, or in the post-Internet world, broadcast desperation (and because everyone is broadcasting their desperation the net effect is the same) are also lives of continuous compromise. And compromise is change.
For most of us, existence is merely death by a thousand compromises. The end of Vic Mackey’s story perfectly articulates (and symbolically embodies) this contradiction. Over seven seasons of THE SHIELD, Vic doesn’t change at all.
At the end of the show’s final season (once the rest of the Strike Team have already by turns been murdered, arrested and suicid-ed) he is forced to work and live in desperation, just like the rest of us. It’s the perfect ending for the psychopath cop who applied his personal brand of morality to everyone but himself.
All characters that fascinate have one core attribute in common: they refuse to compromise.
Whether they are making or dealing drugs, building an empire, “protecting” their family or killing murderers, characters that truly fascinate either refuse to change, or are simply unable to.
Changing would mean giving-up, acquiescing, surrendering, throwing-in the towel. These characters are only stopped by death (though often they aren’t stopped by death either). Fascinating characters are on a mission and nothing can be allowed to stand in their way.
Why can’t they change and still reach their goal?
Because their psychology is what drives them toward that goal.
As soon as they change, the drive would disappear.
Indeed, the controlling idea of complex characters that fascinate could be rendered as: someone wants something, won’t stop till they get it, will defeat all obstacles in their way and even then will still want more.
There is an important distinction to make between film and TV narratives.
Within a feature narrative – even if it’s episodic and runs for three hours – any genuine change by an uncompromising character can undercut their monomania (and even with films that cover decades of a character’s life, this rule still applies because for the audience the time span of their narrative engagement is still three hours).
In long-form television, it is possible for a monomaniacal character to undergo some change, though such change needs to start deep in and take serious time to occur – which means it usually takes at least five seasons to make this work.
The end of Don Draper’s story in MAD MEN is a great example (with a twist). The debate still rages about whether Don actually changed – or whether he simply co-opted the 60s Zeitgeist to sell more stuff…”
attract the strong attention and interest of (someone).“I’ve always been fascinated by computers”
END OF EXCERPT
Could your characters be improved? Are they complex enough? Do their contradictions, tics and idiosyncracies feel organic? Do you wish they were more, well, fascinating?In our full FREE 40-page e-book you’ll learn about:
- Our 12-Step Process to Writing Characters that Fascinate
- The Psychology of psychopaths
- Why the Archetype of Justice Enforcer is so Fascinating
- The Subtext of Character Needs and Wants
- CASE STUDIES ON:
- Daniel Plainview (THERE WILL BE BLOOD)
- Lisbeth Salander (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO)
- Gustavo Fring (BREAKING BAD)
- Gemma Tellow-Morrow (SONS OF ANARCHY)
- And much more!
Read on — DOWNLOAD the FREE 40-page Guide to Writing Characters That Fascinate here…