A strong character can make all the difference in the world in a good story. Crafting a complex character that your audience connects with on a deeper level is the goal for every writer. How do you add depth to your character and your story? What makes the viewer feel the plight of your character? How do you create empathy? Is having a flawed character enough? What makes the audience root for the outcome? I’ve explored these questions at length in my own experience as a Story/Career Consultant. I’ve also come across some great books that shed a lot of valuable light on the subject, such as: My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter and Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin. We can also learn so much about character by simply examining some our most memorable TV characters: Tony Soprano (“Sopranos”), Vic Mackey (“The Shield”), Don Draper (“Mad Men”), Dexter Morgan (“Dexter”), Walter White (“Breaking Bad”), Alicia Florrick (“The Good Wife”), and Nicholas Brody (“Homeland”).
I believe that there are many ways to deepen your central character. One way is to place your character in a powerful dilemma at the beginning of your story. By being put between a rock and a hard place, character is revealed by the choice that is made. You also want to make sure that we empathize with your central character from the beginning. If we empathize, we root for them to achieve the goal. A way to create empathy is to show your character a bit off balance as a result of a recent loss or news that throws his/her world out of joint. By turning their world upside down and presenting a powerful dilemma, you give them a new direction to go. The answer to the dilemma is the journey of your story and the goal is putting their life back in balance through external, internal and spiritual desires and actions. Another question I advise writers to consider is: What is the wound that drives your central character and the flaw that gets in the way? Many writers can write strong flawed characters; however, as an audience, if we don’t know the wound that drives the flaw, we won’t connect with your character on as deep a level as we could. When you show your character evolve from the beginning to the end of your story and you see the growth, you add depth. To show how a character evolves from the beginning to the end of the story, you can show your character responding from the ego for the first three-quarters of your story; then, for the final quarter of your story, have them respond from their spirit in connection to the goal.
In Writing the Pilot, William Rabkin writes, “The most important thing about Vic Mackey was that he believed he was a good guy. Sure, he made deals with criminals but that was to keep worse criminals off the street. As for killing the other cop, that was required for his own self-defense, but even then he knew it was wrong and it tortured him for the entire run of the series.” Rabkin goes on “…Vic Mackey acted like a bad guy in order to be a good guy. And that was the theme as well: How much evil can you do in the pursuit of noble goals before you stop being one of the good guys?” Rabkin says that the heart of what defines a character is his goal and the choices that he makes in trying to obtain it. This book is excellent. It really is a brilliant discussion on what works on certain shows and why it works well as opposed to what didn’t work and why it didn’t work.
In My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, Jeffrey Alan Schechter offers a great way to add complexity to your villain. He writes, “Your villain is a dark reflection of your hero’s wants, needs and desires. Put another way, the villain is doing what the hero would do if he or she wasn’t constrained by morality, purpose and righteousness.” Schechter suggests using four questions when working through your story: Who is your hero? What is your hero trying to accomplish? Who is trying to stop your hero? What happens if your hero fails? This book also encourages you to examine the thematic question that is being explored in your story. Schechter writes, “The thematic argument of the film will have been stated either explicitly or implicitly, either through action or visual. The hero is established in his or her ordinary world as the “greatest” or “most” extreme version of something. The hero has limited awareness of which aspect of his or her being is “broken.” The brokenness is often associated with a ghost from the hero’s past, a major and unresolved crisis that the hero has ignored or inadequately dealt with which is coming to a head RIGHT NOW!” This is one of the stronger screenwriting books I have read
In closing, think about deeper ways to reveal character. Show us how your character sees the world versus how the world sees your character. Craft a thematic question that your character answers. By creating empathy, establishing the wound that drives your character and the flaw that gets in the way, building a powerful dilemma, and setting strong emotional stakes, you will add a layer to your story that will entice your audience to want to see the outcome.