Character Development: What Makes a Compelling Character?

March 18, 2014

Character Development: What Makes a Compelling Character?If you are a successful writer, your words may one day make it to the big screen, voiced by talent like Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman. But no matter how accomplished and talented the actor is, your character needs to be well-developed before a single shot is filmed.

Good character development is the key to creating compelling characters. You can’t rely on actors to breathe life into your characters, you have to help them come alive on the page. A well-written character can become more memorable than the story itself, but a poorly developed one can ruin an otherwise great concept. So what are the keys to creating compelling characters?

Taking Action

Well-developed characters take active roles in their own lives. No one wants to watch a character that just sits around waiting for something to happen. An enthralling character is one that goes out and makes things happen. One of the most critical steps of character development is determining what drives your character. A compelling character is driven by a need or desire that he or she constantly fights to achieve.

In Showtime’s hit series “Weeds”, Nancy Botwin is driven by one of the most basic needs: The need for a mother to provide for and protect her children. Her questionable choices and illegal activities are all born from this desire. This constant fight helps create more conflict, which makes for an even more interesting story. The more Nancy fights, the more she loses control of her life, and the more absorbing her character becomes.

One of a Kind

Some of the most compelling characters are memorable for an unusual quirk or mannerism. When used effectively, a certain trait can establish a unique character, but it is important that the trait is relevant to the story. Jack Nicholson gave an Academy Award-winning performance as Melvin in As Good As It Gets” (1997). Melvin suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which prevents him from functioning as others do, and it acts as the internal challenge he must face. Melvin’s personality trait is bigger than just a part of his character description, and it ultimately helps guide the story itself.

Even Superman has a Weakness

Great characters, no matter how cool and confident, should have a flaw or a weakness. Flaws make a character unique and complex – in other words, human. Most importantly, flaws make characters relateable and sympathetic. Audiences will be more invested in the outcome of a story if they care about what happens to a character.

While it may seem implausible that audiences would root for a murdering thief, many people did exactly that as they watched the gripping life of Tony Soprano unravel on HBO’s “The Sopranos”. Tony’s panic attacks and his need for psychotherapy are a weakness for his character, but they are also what make his mobster life relateable to ordinary viewers.

Black and White Is Boring

In some old westerns, the good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black ones. This clearly told the audience which side each character was on. When it comes to good character development, it is crucial for you to avoid these types of cookie-cutter personalities. A character who lacks human complexity runs the risk of becoming a caricature.

Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) could easily have been pigeonholed as an over-the-top, ruthless villain. But there is more to her than the cold persona she portrays. She pays for her success in her personal life, and it reveals a softer side that makes her sympathetic.

Likability Isn’t Everything

It is not essential for the audience to root for your character to make him compelling. Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008) is one of the most memorable villains in recent film history, but he is also psychopathic and despicable. He is certainly not likable, and the audience is not rooting for him. He is captivating nonetheless because he is driven, unique and complex.

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