by David Gittlin
Most serious writers want to connect with an audience; preferably a big one. You have something to say. You have a story to tell. You want people to read it. One of the best ways to make people want to read your work is to create memorable and relatable central characters. Whether you are writing a short story, screenplay, or a novel, you want your readers to identify with and live the story through your main characters. To do this, you have to create three dimensional characters that live and breathe in your reader’s imagination. I’d like to share with you a method I learned for from professional, published writers.
I started writing in earnest when I began a career in marketing communications. In my early thirties, it became clear to me that writing was the thing I enjoyed doing the most when it came to work. I wrote promotional copy and content for radio and TV ads, brochures, websites, press releases, Power Point® presentations, sales contests and salesperson motivation, and on and on. In my forties, I wrote a few not-so-good short stories. At the age of fifty, I decided to try my hand at writing screenplays. I was scared shitless. Deep down, I really didn’t think I could do it. Some crazy impulse pushed me towards the cliff’s edge and over it into the unknown.
Fortunately, I was old enough to realize I needed help. At fifty, I didn’t have the time or inclination to fall into the traps most beginning fiction writers do. I had already suffered enough scars from learning how to write business communications. I wanted to walk as straight a path as possible in this new world of fiction writing. I knew that mistakes were inevitable. I just wanted to avoid the detours.
Somehow, I found my way to the Online Writers’ Program at UCLA. One of the first things I learned in my online courses was the necessity of building an original and compelling Protagonist and Antagonist plus an interesting cast of supporting characters. Unless you are an incredibly gifted genius, you will need to know your characters thoroughly before you start writing your story. You must know them in detail, including the seminal events that made them who they are today, commonly called their backstory. Why is this necessary? Because if you don’t know who your characters are and what they need and want before you start writing, they will almost certainly be flat, two-dimensional cut outs. At the very least, they won’t be original and interesting.
If you craft your characters carefully and thoughtfully, your story will write itself. Your plot will be character driven, rather than contrived. Your readers will become emotionally attached to your characters.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Enough of this baloney. Tell me how to write amazing characters.
There are two methods I can suggest. You can sit down and write everything you know about your character. Hopefully, you’ll fill several pages with your biographical information. If you can do this effectively, more power to you. There’s only one catch: You better know what to include in your character’s bio because, as we’ve said, you have to know your character inside and out. That’s why I prefer the second method, especially if you are new to creating fictional characters.
The second method, which I developed from my online courses at UCLA, employs a character template to build your character. I feel it’s better than writing about your characters in an unstructured format because it forces you to answer questions about them that you might try to avoid or just plain leave out. Here’s the template you can use to create central characters with more originality, specificity, and complexity. Filling out the template takes a bit of work, but in the end, I believe it can expand your audience and pave the way to greater writing success.
Build or Figure:
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Guest post contributed by David Gittlin. David has written three feature length screenplays, produced two short films, and published three novels. For more information, please visit www.davidgittlin.com .