Pete's (Basic) Tips for Writing Good Characters
They're basic to me, but then, I see enough flat characters all over narrative media so, maybe you'd benefit too?
We’re living in a pretty amazing time—it’s easier than ever for us writers to tell our stories.* Technology has not only made it downright easy for us to get our ideas out of our heads and onto semi-permanent media, but it's also allowed us to spread those stories far and wide via blogs or PDFs sold via sites like Gumroad or straight up self-publishing (like I did on Amazon!). With a bit more money/effort/time we can animate or even shoot our stories with real actors and then distribute them via YouTube all at a tiny financial cost. So in a world where so much more story-telling is possible, why do we still have shows that are pretty mediocre? And what makes them mediocre? Often times it's the lack of strong characters.
So tell me, Pete, what is required to make a strong character?
This essay is inspired by the much too common appearance of characters that just don't have a lot going on. They have a single motivation to keep them moving through the plot, but that's it. That is rarely enough to make everyone reading/watching care. Sometimes an actor or an artist or character designer can make up for a character with no personality or backstory but really, every character should be written with a character. Sounds simple, right? Then why is that new Star Wars TV show called Obi-Wan Kenobi when it's really "The Young Princess Leia Chronicles?"
Young Leia is really the one who has a real and dynamic personality on that show--Obi-Wan in the Star Wars movies has never really had much of a personality beyond that of the wisened old warrior. You get a taste of his PTSD and his tremendous respect of Padme in a few places, but there could be so much more. If you watched The Clone Wars animated series, you'd be familiar with a much more dynamic version of Obi-Wan. He's not only a warrior, but a good leader, a risk-taker, a person with a sense of humor, and we even discover that he fell in love once.
Why did the movies never do more with Obi-Wan as a character and why did the Clone Wars TV show do what the movies didn't?
I think the writers of the movies just didn't think further character development was needed for a parable like Star Wars but because the animated series had a LOT more story to tell and was basically forced to flesh out his character more than the original Star Wars movies or their prequels ever really did. We love Obi-Wan as a character because Alec Guiness and Ewan McGregor are pretty engaging actors.
So, how do we provide a character that will not require an actor or animator or artist to do it all on their own?
It's all about giving your character a back story that is dense enough to give said character a way to react to any potential plot point in a way that is specific to them. In other words, your character has to know how they're going to react to what ever is thrown at them. A backstory provides the raw materials for this.
This back story doesn't have to be part of the actual story. The idea here is to come up with a basic idea of a few important things from their past by answering some questions.
Break it down for me!
Where were they born? Just make some choices here. You can always change this later if they need to be from somewhere else to further the plot.
Who was their first love? Again, don't get bogged down, but make a choice here--male, female, something else? Blond, brunette, no hair at all? Why did the character fall in love with them? How did it end?
Favorite color, place and food. I got the last suggestion from comic book writer Fred Van Lante when we were in college together. It sounds basic because it is--it's also incredibly useful, and I've expanded it a bit to favorite color and place, too.
When they were a child, what did they want to be when they grow up? What about when they first became an adult? When they reached middle age? Or when they reached old age? Hey, old people should have even better character development than younger characters!
Who have they lost? Everyone loses someone. Most of us lose plenty of people in our lives. It's part of life and those we lose often become part of our own personal character. These losses don't have to be deaths--they can be break-ups, parents abandoning children, siblings abandoning families, friend who moved away... use your imagination here.
What this does is help provide motivation for the character beyond the plot itself. Answering all of the above questions will give you ways to push your character forward in directions you might not have thought of. Obviously, as I said, not all of the answers above will end up in your story but they will help you better know your character to the point where you won't even need to think about how they'll react because they'll have already told you.
How would the answers to the above help the Obi-Wan Kenobi show?
Over on my Substack blogletter, at ScriptDrPete.com, in my "How I'd" have written a TV show based around Obi-Wan Kenobi, I made it all about #5. It wasn't just about what Obi-Wan did to Anakin or how Padme died in front of him (like the current Obi-Wan show is making it), it was about Anakin, Padme and all the other lives he lost during the Clone Wars. Quite a few clone troopers became people Kenobi respected and admired. A great many of them died serving under General Kenobi. We saw a tiny snippet of that pain in episode 2 of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but my version would have been all about that. And of course, the woman who was very likely the love of his life died in his arms. This especially, along with all of the other losses would have pained him so much that he started to feel the pull of the Dark Side.
He'd also have made new friends. I never got around to giving him another love interest. I guess I am still hoping the writers at Lucasfilm get around to telling us more about how he and Bo-Katan's older sister probably had a thing, and possibly a child... See, that's how you write a good character!
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