Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
Writers are often defined as crazy, myself included. But I use my insanity to help me create multi-layered characters. You see, my characters go everywhere with me, even to my therapist’s couch.
In my opinion, therapy should be mandatory for writers, or at least a Psych 101 class.
Whether you call it a character arc, evolution, or growth, the change in your characters from start to finish is what showcases the theme of your story and makes their journey relatable to the readers.
But, how can you grow your characters if you don’t understand psychology?
In order to emotionally evolve a character, you need to be able to identify why he has chosen not to evolve prior to the moment in time your story begins.
Christopher Volger and Michael Hauge talk about the importance of discovering your characters' wounds in a fantastic DVD called The Hero’s Two Journeys. But evolution is more than pinpointing a wound. How does your character react to those wounds? Where did that behavior come from? How did they learn to cope as a child?
Recently, my therapist and I were discussing how I learned my coping skills. It was one of those ah-ha moments, both for my writing and my life.
Coping skills are unique to each person. When we are young and in a situation that scares or challenges us, how we cope depends entirely on how safe we feel in our surroundings. Children rarely stand up to adults, so they either trust them blindly or freeze in fear of them. But when we ourselves become adults, we often don't adjust our manner of coping. Changing those coping mechanisms is impossible unless you can identify them. They are ingrained in us, and ingrained in our characters.
In life, whether we realize it or not, we attract people who are familiar, which often means we attract those who mirror people from our childhood – people who either scarred us or who loved us. If our childhood is full of people who ripped apart our self-esteem, we’ll attract those who keep us in that familiar place of insecurity. The opposite is true if we are surrounded by love and support.
Who would your protagonist attract into his inner circle?
You might be tempted to surround him with angelic good guys, but do you really think his life was that boring? And if his life was indeed that dull, your readers would be asleep in five minutes. Let’s face it, today’s audience is too savvy for a remake of Leave It to Beaver.
What is it about the antagonist that might have attracted the protagonist to him? Does he subconsciously remind him of the very person who inflicted his childhood wound? I say “subconsciously” because if he’s conscious of it, there’s no room for discovery and evolution.
Let’s now put your antagonist on the couch.
Obviously, this dude has flaws. But beyond his sexy, bad-boy traits, there must be something humanizing in him. After all, everyone is born pure. However, if you saw We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I highly recommend), that theory might be debatable. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume the stork dropped off a perfect bundle of gooey goodness. What happened to him along the way that marred his potential? Find that, and you can create rich layers in his story.
Even if your antagonist is a rotten, serial-killing scoundrel, you must make the audience see a little bit of themselves in him when he’s on screen. Even Hannibal Lecter got the audience to root for him.
Now, apply that type of analysis to all your supporting characters. The more layers you can add to every single character in your story, the more invested your readers are going to be, and the better the talent you’ll attract to the roles.
I doubt many of you would want to pull a bar stool up and chat the night away with a one-note character. No one wants to spend a lot of time with someone who is boring.
If I sat on my therapist’s couch and only shared my healthy qualities, she’d be yawning. Instead, I spill my ugly sins, fears, and flaws, leaving her frantically scribbling in her notepad, truly wanting to help me.
She is rooting for me to change, but I can’t change unless I make a conscious choice to change.
If your characters don’t make different choices than the ones they would have made in the opening scenes, your story won’t advance or have meaning. Your characters have to overcome their internal demons.
That's the thing about demons, fear, angst, and uncertainty; we can't hide from them. No matter how much effort we put into hiding, they will consume us and leave destruction in their path. It’s their whole purpose in our lives. It’s why they exist. It’s why we create them for our characters – to add conflict to the story.
Help yourself help your characters.
Start by visualizing yourself across from a therapist, probing you with questions. Will you lie? Will you keep repeating mistakes? Or will you choose to evolve? If your character had your problems, what would you tell her to do?
My guess is you would push her to change.
In my opinion, you’ll never be able to evolve your characters if you haven’t experienced being ripped apart, bawling on the bathroom floor, broken, metaphorically naked and lost.
Maybe the best practice in writing great characters is to learn how to evolve yourself. It might change not only your writing, but also your life.
Change is frightening, but it’s essential for growth and happiness. The same is true for your stories and for those fictional people you get to play with every single day. Sit one of them on the couch today and ask the tough questions, imagining how she would answer, or if she’d squirm, lie and hold back the tears.
Most importantly, really push your characters. I double-dog-dare you to find the question that would make your antagonist cry. As my therapist always says, it’s what makes you cry that shows the real wound.
There’s no way around the hard work of self-exploration and growth, both in your life and in your words. But remember to have fun with it. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne's advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.