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Home » Archives » August 2006 » Still, most of them smell fine
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08/06/2006: Still, most of them smell fine

Here is a super cool thing about having this blog. The other night someone asked me how to add dimensionality to a character. At a party, they asked me! I love that – party conversation is a lot more fun when you can talk about aspects of writing instead of just praising the appetizers and gossiping about which celebrities smell bad (a surprisingly long list).

The problem this person was having was that they were working on a spec pilot featuring two main characters. The lead character was coming across as sparkling and vibrant, but the slightly more secondary character (the sister of the lead), just wasn’t as interesting. Here’s what I eventually came up with:

A neat trick to quickly devising an interesting character is to think about the contradictions in their nature. You probably do this already when you’re trying to describe an interesting actual person whom you know. You say things like “He’s this big bruiser of a guy, who writes the most amazing poetry.” Or “She’s so quiet and shy, except when she’s arguing a case in court.”

Imagine character traits that all support each other as a field of arrows all pointing in the same direction. When you add arrows that point in other directions, you start getting a more interesting dynamic… shapes and forces and complexity. Of course, the traits don’t really contradict each other; they just support each other in non-obvious ways. Ways that make you want to dig deeper into the character’s psyche, to find the connection.

I think Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a character who seems all the realer because of her contradictions. Fierce yet vulnerable (or is it fierce *because* she’s vulnerable?). Smart and skilled but impulsive and intuitive. Self-destructive, self-deluding, but also capable of startling insight. You want to get to know her better to figure out where all these traits come from.

Here’s one of the first lines I ever wrote for the character of Cordelia on Buffy:

I do well on standardized tests.
(off their looks)
What? I can’t have layers?

I was so tickled with that line, and completely delighted when it actually made it into the final episode. I just love those moments of unexpected revelations of character. This one was done with purposeful obviousness, for the sake of the joke, but it got the job done anyway.

Come up with the main traits first. You don’t want “contradictory” to be the only thing that shines through. Figure out who this person *mostly* is. Then add some arrows jetting off in other directions. I bet you’ll get interesting results right away!

Lunch: wonton soup from Noodle Planet.


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