When was the last time you fell in love with a movie’s character? I don’t mean the last time you liked a movie, or felt that familiar rush of adrenaline at a particular plot point. I mean, when was the last time a movie ended, and you just wanted a few more minutes with those characters? (I would also like to point you to my article on creating the Dynamic Protagonist.)
A plot drives a movie, but the characters are its heart and soul. It’s the people that you love and hate. What would “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” be without Madea? Would Silence of the Lambs have been as chilling without the back and forth between Agent Starling and Dr. Lecter? With this two part series, I am going to try to explain to you what make a great character and in part two how you can do it.
They Make Everyone Better
The simplest answer is that a great character is someone that brings everyone around it to life. You know you have a great character when the scenes suddenly become more fun, sad, thrilling, etc. Lets take for example “Silence of the Lambs.”
Don’t you think that Starling’s best scenes are with Dr. Lecter? Is he a main character? Is the story about Dr. Lecter? No. The story is about Starling becoming a real FBI agent as she catches Buffalo Bill. Every scene she has with him though makes her a better character. That is one of the cornerstones of character development.
They Create An Emotional Response
One of my favorite characters this year was Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman in the Fargo TV series. I have never had my emotions and opinions rocked so fast like I did for Lester. He was a loser that seemed to finally get what was due, thanks to a little push from assassin Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton). He wasn’t doing some good things, but you wanted this guy to win. We watched him get insulted, beat up, and emasculated. When he finally came out ahead, we were happy… for about 10 seconds.
That all changed in a single moment (spoiler alert!). Lester, suspecting Malvo was waiting for him in his business, sends his wife in to get some paperwork. Just when you think he’s going to tell her to come back and get in the car, he gives her his coat, solidifying her death. When I saw that, my heart dropped to my feet and you wanted Lester to get his comeuppance.
They are flawed
No great character is perfect. Those characters that seem to be perfect are either hiding their faults, or are so boring no one will be invested in them. Yes, people watch television and movies to escape from their own lives, but they want to see people similar to them. Watching Superman beat up he bad guys and win is thrilling, but empty. It isn’t until we find out his love of humanity and Lois Lane that we really want to root for him. He has a weakness just like us. Flaws make characters seem more human. Vince Vaughn has pretty much made a living out of playing these characters. Peter La Fleur in Dodgeball is a lazy slacker that isn’t ready to give up his gym without a fight.
We like him because he’s funny and charming. When he begins to believe in himself and is able to overcome the very flaws that previously defined his character, we as an audience begin to root for him.
Buddies and Ensemble Characters
Every now and then there are characters that just work together. Separate, they’re good characters, but together they’re awesome. My favorite example of this is Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. I love this movie. You’ll find a lot of buddy comedy movies are this way, dating back to Abbott and Costello.
They are two pieces of a whole. They’re two extremes that when together, almost make a single character. For example, Riggs is a reckless loose cannon, and Murtaugh is the by-the-book stable family man. Abbott was always the serious one that delivered everything deadpan. Costello was a flaky overemotional basket case that was scared of his own shadow. This also works with full ensembles, like the great films from Robert Altman, such as Nashville and M*A*S*H.
It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, the diagram of a great character is the same. It’s these characters that can mean the difference between an Emmy in or cancellation or an Oscar and… John Carter.