How to… Love and Hate Your Characters

So this one is more about screen writing than production filmmaking, but quite often, filmmaking starts with the script. This blog is about helping you to help your characters, by doing the worst possible things to them.

Audiences love conflict, so in order to create characters audiences will love, you have to be incredibly mean to them.

  1. Make them human. Even if they are superhuman, give them a vulnerability or a flaw… Enable them to feel sad, hurt, despair, hate, rage, jealousy, fear. That way we can understand them a little better, and love them a little bit more.

Example –Shakespeare’s characters always have specific flaws. Hamlet is crucially indecisive, Macbeth is proud and ambitious, Romeo and Juliet are naïve to the world they live in, Othello is too trusting…

Macbeth is ruthlessly ambitious to his downfall

Macbeth is ruthlessly ambitious to his downfall

  1. Exploit their fears. What makes them tick? What are they afraid of? Now that you’ve made them human, give them a chance to show it. Create a high pressure environment to make the most of their vulnerability. Push them enough so that we start to feel sympathy for them.

Example – Marlin in Finding Nemo is scared of the great wide ocean, filled with predators, but has to live in it and explore in order to search for Nemo (a strange example, given he’s a fish and not a human, but it works)

Marlin is terrified of the world he lives in.

Marlin is terrified of the world he lives in.

  1. Give them a tragic backstory. Don’t be content with giving them a hard time in the present day, use your power as a writer to influence the past and link a past experience to their weaknesses. This turns our sympathy into understanding and we can now defend them.

Example – Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents brutally murdered as a child. We understand his will for vengeance.

Bruce Wayne experiences the cruel death of his parents

Bruce Wayne experiences the cruel death of his parents

  1. Give them enemies. Enemies are great for putting the characters we love under pressure, and something to define themselves against. Even if they are behaving badly, we know they are doing it for the right reasons.

Example – Regina George from Mean Girls is a great enemy. We know Cady is behaving badly when she sets out to sabotage her, but we completely understand why, and we love it.

Give your characters worthwhile enemies, characters we love to hate

Give your characters worthwhile enemies, characters we love to hate

  1. Tire them out with enemies and obstacles. That way, we know they really want it, and will finally deserve it. We feel happy for them.

Example – In the Deathly Hallows, Harry is tired out by a succession of hurdles thrown at him and very nearly dies in the forest. The support of his parents and allies come to him via the Resurrection Stone to resurge him and we’re thrilled when he makes it through.

Harry is worn down to the brink of death by Voldemort and the Death Eaters

Harry is worn down to the brink of death by Voldemort and the Death Eaters

  1. Give them something to lose. Make it big, in fact, make it the most important thing in their life.

Example – This can be enormous, like the end of the world in the Men In Black series, or more personal, like when Katniss faces losing Prim to The Hunger Games.

Prim means more to Katniss than her own life

Prim means more to Katniss than her own life

  1. Isolate them. Take away their friends or support. (This is especially good if they do this themselves through their behaviour)

Example – Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always up to this one. She’d push her friends away, leaving both herself and them more vulnerable as a result.

Buffy alienates her friends with her behaviour

Buffy alienates her friends with her behaviour

  1. Change the goalposts. Let them work out they’ve been chasing the wrong goal and what they thought they wanted isn’t real. Then let them mourn the goal. Major sympathy points.

Example – In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods is in love with Warner, overcoming all odds to follow him to Harvard, only to realize later that he’s not the person she thought he was.

Elle chases the wrong goal in Legally Blonde

Elle chases the wrong goal in Legally Blonde

  1. Give them a deadline. Preferably an un-meetable one.

Example – Doc Brown has to invent time travel so that he can escape the assassins from Libya in Back to the Future

Doc Brown meets an impossible deadline, creating time travel in the process

Doc Brown meets an impossible deadline, creating time travel in the process

  1. Create adverse weather conditions. It’s worth noting this one can come off as a bit cheesy, but if it’s done well, then it can really put your characters under pressure. If you’re unsure about including a tidal wave, maybe think about including an audience – what happens then?

Example – In The Truman Show, the producers create a thunderstorm to exacerbate his fear of the water to stop him escaping

Use the weather to make life even worse, like in The Truman Show

Use the weather to make life even worse, like in The Truman Show

Remember, make life as difficult as possible for them. If you hate them when you’re writing, we’ll love them when we’re watching. Good luck!

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