Today’s Dispatch: A Question of Character

This post is brought to you by Sugababes, by way of Gary Numan.


In the last two entries, I’ve mentioned the concept of character development in writing, which I continue to work on and remedy on a constant basis. Nowhere has the concept been more evident than in the development of Nominated for Script Frenzy, where I had to re-create my characters from scratch. Claire, in particular, had to be re-developed radically because she had too much going on in the original: the loving relationship with her aunt that was supposed to give her character dimension suddenly got thrown by the wayside as soon as she meets Mr. Academy Award-worthy Boyfriend Material, who also had some character-development problems of his own. There was so much potential in these characters, and so many ways to make their story more interesting… so how is it that I couldn’t give them a plot that was worthy of the potential?

One of the things that helped me in the character development front was the Story Premise Worksheet from the Tennessee Screenwriter’s Association, which helped me sort out the themes of the story based on what I saw were motivations on the part of my characters. Paired with the Thematic Premise Worksheet, I saw that the stakes were not high enough for Claire to pursue her course of action: so what if a cute guy asks her out to an awards show seen by millions of people around the world? That’s not enough to justify the premise of the whole story… and if I can’t believe it, who else will?

And then there’s this essay by Alex Epstein on the Script Frenzy site, which talks about unlikable characters which fascinate us to no end. This quote, in particular, stood out to me:

…We care about characters, not because of their virtues, but because of their flaws. Who do you care about in your life? People who make your life easier? Your housekeeper? Your assistant? Your therapist? Or people who complicate your life because of their difficulties? Like your spouse and your kids. 

So in this particular screenplay, the answer wasn’t for me to make the main character more likable nor his girlfriend more worthy. Instead I made the girlfriend much more clearly crazy — clarifying just where her insanity lies — and showing more clearly how the main character is blind to her craziness. The solution is in making their flaws clearer and stronger, rather than giving them virtues they do not deserve.

That’s when I realized that the Claire in my screenplay should not be the same Claire from my Camp NaNo. She’s nowhere near passive – in fact, she’s capable of being as manipulative as Michael, if not more so – so why not give her a reason to act strongly on instinct? Give her a long history with Michael, and a secret that has devastated their relationship in spite of their affection towards each other. Give her a wardrobe from Banana Republic, then make her walk through a bar full of Gucci-clad occupants from the first two circles of fashion hell. Give her a job that’s very close to Michael’s field, then have her lose it for stupid reasons in spite of her impressive resume.

In short, give her more reasons to be angry, right out the gate, and make her deal with it until she realizes that there’s no more going back.

Now I plan on going back to my other manuscripts and re-working all of my protagonists before I polish the rest of the plot. First and foremost: Mabel Wilder, the eponymous protagonist and narrator who’s slated in November to pick up where Claire left off with Aunt Colleen.

(If I have time, I might spend the Camp NaNo months of July and August to re-write Her Name is Veronica as a screenplay. Nica could really use a litte more bad-assery in her life, especially if she doesn’t want to go back to that call center.)

Love, Stella

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Stella Torres

is the author of the adult contemporary romances Save the Cake, Crushingly Close, and Nine Years Away, as well as the short story “Be Creative” in the anthology Kids These Days: Stories from Luna East Vol. 1.

In her previous life, she has worked in public relations, taught English as a second language, and even attended graduate school (twice!). She has lived in Indonesia, Honolulu, and Quezon City before moving back to her hometown of Los Banos, a few hours’ drive (with traffic) from the heart of Manila.

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