Are your characters, especially your main characters, acceptable to the pre-conceived ideas about what makes a good fiction hero? Yet, have you used some ingenious creativity that makes your characters uniquely yours? Remember that despite the fear of caricatures (which I shall address in a later blog), editors, producers, publishers love stereotypes mostly because of the comfort factor. But they also love creatively manipulated stereotypes. So, create characters that fit into one of the pre-conceived concepts from the current crop of popular movies in the theaters. Then use your creative juices to make your character uniquely your creation that gives that "person" a flair that the other characters like him just don’t have. And that is one of the secrets to getting your novel published or script produced in Hollywood.
Are your characters acceptable to the target audience you are writing for? Remember that if the people watching the movie don’t like your character, they will rate your movie as “Yuck!” rather than “Wow!” So, give your audience what they think they want but add creativity that makes them different.
Do your main characters move the story along? In reality, this is the defining quality of a main character. If what they do and say does not affect the story, then you have misidentified who the story is about.
A major element in writing a great character for your story can best be described in a question: Why should the audience care about your character? This addresses the issue of the audience feeling empathy toward and identifying with your hero. If the audience fails to care about your main character, they will put your book down or won’t stay for the end of the movie.
There are a number of ways that you can create in your character a sense of intrigue and identification with your hero. First, make sure that you introduce your hero early in the story so that the audience knows immediately who the story is about. Note that in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first person the audience is introduced to is Indiana Jones who is in a rather difficult situation in which he immediately screws up and runs away to save his own skin. That opening may not sound like an exciting beginning, but it worked wonderfully as the audience sees that this guy is not a super hero: he’s just a guy like me. Within ten minutes of the opening credits, the audience is already in the screenwriter's pocket and identifying with his hero.
Oddly though, this opening sequence used several more techniques for creating identification by allowing the audience to empathize with the hero. The script placed Jones in serious jeopardy. His arch enemy, a man named Belloch, had captured Jones, taken the prize he had recovered from a dangerous cave, and threatened him with death by poison darts. Only Jones’ unique escape (he just ran like hell) got him out of danger and into the hands of the pilot who had brought him to the jungle area where the scene was taking place. So, the closing shot of the opening scene is Jones in an airplane flying off into the horizon.
Another technique to use to aid the audience into identifying with the main character is by allowing the hero to be self-giving and/or self-sacrificing when the circumstance arises. Jones and his “love-interest,” Marion Ravensbrook, are on a ship sailing for the U.S. when it is intercepted by a German U-boat. During the Nazi search of the ship, Marion is captured and placed on board the submarine then taken away. As the Germans left the boat, Jones emerged from his hiding place only to discover that Marion had been captured. So he did the only thing he could do: he jumps overboard and attaches himself to the submarine while trying to figure out just how he could possibly save the one he cares about. That scene brings a realization to the audience that here’s a man willing to give his life to try and rescue the woman he loves.
Among the many tips and tricks a screenwriter can use to build credibility and empathy with the main character of a script is to give that person the ability to do what it is that he needs to do. This could be as simple as showing the character as being an expert shot then later having him hit an impossible target perfectly. Had the audience not been shown the earlier scene of the hero firing a rifle and hitting the center of a target, then they would simply have dismissed the shot as silly manipulation..
So, empowerment begins with the character having whatever ability or skill that will be necessary later on in the story when the hero is required to use every bit of ingenuity and expertise available to face an almost impossible task. But, this is only a surface level empowerment. The deeper power a hero should have is in self-discipline on a level that would lead to a final empowerment that gives the hero the ability to run toward the danger rather than away from it. Plus, the hero should also have some ability to control or influence other people to aid in the accomplishment of a goal that ultimately ends the conflict of the story. Audiences can identify with someone who has the confidence needed to accomplish the impossible by getting others to go with him.
This leads to the third part of empowerment: power over one’s circumstances. Most people can fully understand the problem of facing insurmountable circumstances in life. Let your hero face an impossible situation and overcome that with the knowledge he or she has gained during the course of the story. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Jones spends the entire movie finding and holding onto a notebook kept by his father (played by Sean Connery). At the end of the story, his father is shot by the villain and Jones has to go through a dangerous cave in order to procure the “cup of Christ” filled with “holy water” that would heal his dad. This is an impossible situation which Jones has to be empowered to overcome. And that power comes from the writings in that notebook.
Are your characters so interesting and real that they make the story really worth sitting through for the entire length of the film? No matter how wonderful your story might be, if the main characters are dull and uninteresting, your audience will stop reading or quit watching. So you need to look at them seriously and ask yourself the following questions: Do your characters move the story along? Are they worthy enough for your story and strong enough to make your story work? Will the audience actually “see” the worthiness and trust that you, the writer, care enough about these people that they will be happy they have spent this time with the characters you have created?
Those people around us who are deemed worthy are those people we trust and admire. Are your characters such that the reader or viewer will be willing to take the time to follow the exploits through to the end? And I guess here I must ask you, the writer, "Do you care about these characters? --enough to spend weeks, months or even years with them? When I completed my book The Reluctant General, I was a little disappointed because I had so much fun writing about Barak and Deborah, that I wanted their story to go on and on. I simply had to stop and get the book out for others to share in the story of these people I cared about. One reviewer mentioned that she was "inspired" by the description of a woman in the ancient Middle East who was willing to go against tradition and stand at the head of an army.
How does your main character (or characters) change? In the end, does your main character come to a new realization about the situation or even life? Have their attitudes changed about the goals or the other main characters as a result of the quest the hero took on at the beginning of the story? Does the audience see the changes taking place during the movement of the story? Is the end of your story the beginning of the hero’s new life ahead?
Showing this transformation becomes a major obstacle for most writers early in their writing career. But, there are methods that can be used to show and help the audience to understand and believe the gradual change that takes place over a period of time. Essentially, it is conflict that causes change in humans. Even in real life, when a person is in a conflict situation as simple as a disagreement over a business deal or as complicated as a divorce that includes small children and a large estate, a person is radically changed in many different ways as a result.
So what happens? First of all, the people constantly talk about what happened to them. They tell their neighbors, their intimates, their family, their business colleagues, and anyone who will listen. And then they do things. A divorcee might become depressed and spend all her time at home or become completely engrossed in her work so much so that she never leaves the office except to change clothes and bathe. Or a person whose business has experienced bankruptcy may look at the tragedy and horror as a wonderful opportunity to start something entirely new or to start a job that is totally different from what they had been doing. People respond to conflict by talking and by doing.
But, the most important thing that can happen to a “hero” in a story is that in and through the conflict of the story, he becomes smarter than he was about whatever the conflict dealt with. As the main character deals with events and problems, he gains knowledge that helps in future situations. The hero becomes more of an expert in the things he is facing than anyone else in the story.
A simplified example might help here. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones struggles with every possible thing that could go wrong in his search to find the ancient Ark of the Covenant that was in the possession of Jewish people in ancient biblical times. He makes a lot of mistakes and even bungles several attempts at snagging the Ark. In the end when he and Marion are tied to the post while the Nazi’s attempt to open the top of the Ark he realizes what he and she must do to survive then tells her to keep her eyes closed no matter what happens. That knowledge saved their lives.