Okay, yesterday we talked about some of the general notes that I typically give when I read people’s first drafts. Now let’s talk about some of the character notes:
- Why does the character feel this way? And/Or: What were they expecting to happen? Too often, especially if the hero is based on yourself, you assume that the reader will instantly share your character’s crushes, grudges and expectations. But when someone else reads it, you’re shocked to discover that the reader doesn’t know why the character would have that crush or that grudge, or resent that particular piece of advice from dad. This is your world and you have to create it from scratch… and that includes creating the feelings. Even if these are feelings that the character already has (such as a long-standing crush), you have to create those feeling in the audience for the first time. In order to empathize, we have to fall in love ourselves, based on behavior, not looks. Superman Returns, in addition to a thousand other faults, never thought to show why Superman, or the audience, might like Lois Lane. From the first moment, it was all anguished sighs on both sides.
- Too passive: First draft heroes are almost always too passive. Could the hero have made this happen, instead of this just happening? Instead of this clue landing in their lap, could the hero have sought out the clue? Instead of the villain finding the hero, could the hero have found the villain?
- Hero just says no: The hero should be the person pushing the forward, not the one holding everything back. If heroes say no, they must propose alternatives, not just say “No, this is wrong, I’m not going to do it,” even if “it” is a despicable thing.
- Too easy: In order to coax our heroes all the way to page 110, we tend to make things too easy for them in our first drafts. Rather than scatter a dozen small obstacles in their way which are easily overcome, substitute a few big conflicts that really force the hero to change.
- Judging your characters: If you don’t empathize with your hero, then nobody else will. If your hero, or even your villain, is stupid or shallow or a hypocrite, then you have to portray this flaw in a way that makes us identify and recognize the same flaw in ourselves. Don’t just mock their failings. Scoring points off your own characters is the easiest thing in the world to do, so it’s boring. In life as in screenwriting, every failure of empathy begins with the assumption that people you dislike have no real reason for what they do. Your job as a writer is to show that everybody has their reasons and their own rules.