Thursday, August 11, 2011

How To Create A Compelling Character, Addendum: Why Do Their Friends Like Them?

So I’ve been building towards something for a while... A big post. The ultimate post that sums up (and links to) almost everything I’ve said… A 70 (or so) question checklist that hopes to target and eliminate any problem with any story. That’ll finally arrive next week. It’s already been pushed back a few times because, as I’ve been preparing it, a lot of new things have occurred to me that I wanted to shoehorn in first.

As I was combining, reviewing and expanding my earlier attempts at checklists, I realized a problem I’ve been having for a while with my character recipe. Generally speaking, I try to downplay the term “sympathetic” in favor of “compelling”, and for the most part that works. The nice thing about the “compelling” definition is that it’s wide enough to cover any main character, even anti-heroes like Norman Bates, Michael Corleone and David Chappellet. But I’ve discovered a problem: it makes characters seem a little extreme, especially if they’re supposed to be nice-guy regular heroes.

Once you’ve piled your heroes (and villains) high with as many unfulfilled desires, internal contradictions and raging conflicts as you can, then stop and ask yourself a question: “Yeah, but why do their friends like them?” Sure, sometimes the answer will be, “they don’t.” Bates, Corleone and Chappelet don’t have any close friends. There are even some downright likable heroes who don’t have any friends: C. C. Baxter in The Apartment is adorable, but he’s totally friendless. 

But these should be the exception, not the rule. In real life, even lonely people have friends. Even jerks have friends. As the Mr. T. Experience memorably lamented “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend.” 

Once you’re done tensing your characters up, take a step back and remember that somebody somewhere probably likes this person, so you need to figure out why. You don’t have to agree with those friends--they could like the guy because he’s a jerk, but you have to be able to understand that point of view.

Think about how easy it is to get annoyed by the tightly-wound creep in the next cubicle over, and then one day, an old college buddy visits him at work and he’s suddenly totally relaxed, laughing and joking and ribbing the guy about his gut. If you’re going to write about that character, or any character, you should be able to see in them what that friend sees, in addition to all of their compelling faults.


Christine Tyler said...

Love it. Excellent new angle to think from, as always.

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