Back in 2010, I was sure I would never be a writer. I had moved to LA a few years prior to direct, and, though I had a film that had hit festivals, I was sure that writing just wasn’t for me. I was a director, or maybe a producer, but definitely not a writer. Then, it hit – the perfect idea. I was reading the news, and an article inspired me to leap into writing. I knew I had a lot to learn; I hadn’t written in years, beyond emails and the world of social media, and I knew script format, but not much else. I’d taken a few cursory screenwriting classes, but nothing that could really prepare me for writing the feature I dreamed of. I had a decent sense of plot, and structure was ok, but how do you craft characters? What do you do to make them feel real, alive, more than just stereotypes on the page?
I was talking to my boss at the time, a showrunner with big writing success in TV and theater, knowing she’d give me some good advice… and, she did. She paraphrased John Steinbeck, noting, “Every character has a secret pain they carry inside.” While it’s become a bit of a cliché – and turned into a meme I see occasionally on Twitter – it seems like it’s used to reference real life more frequently than it’s used to refer to characters on a page.
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but that one piece of advice was what was holding me back. While everyone struggles with different areas of characterization, I was struggling most with making my characters feel human. That piece of advice helped humanize villains and bring more depth to my heroes, as I struggled through my feature script. Years later, I still look to that small phrase when crafting characters. What pain is my lead struggling with? What about her best friend? Her mentor? Her worst enemy? Even – and, perhaps, especially – the cruelest people have something that’s hurt them in the past. Bringing that something to life, even just in brainstorm sessions, has helped my characters become more well-rounded, more believable, and more dynamic on the page. Now, whenever I think of the one thing I know that made me a better writer, it’s that piece of advice, which took my characters from flat to three-dimensional.
Do you have a great piece of advice to improve characters? Hit us up at @HarborRoadEnt on Twitter, and let us know! Maybe we’ll blog about it someday!