Paula Landry, MBA, is a writer/producer and consultant helping writers create strategies for INSPIRation, MOTIVATion & ACTivation to excel, improve storytelling, fusing business & creativity. Landry creates media business plans, marketing plans, movie budgets, coaching artists and teaching film business classes at NYU, SVA, Wagner College and MCNY. She’s co-authored This Business of FILM; and Sell Your Screenplay; and is the author of Scheduling and Budgeting Your Film. Connect via LinkedIn, @paulalandry on Twitter, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook #filmdreamers #mediaentrepreneurs #aflickchick
Is your hero perfect? Or is it possible that your villain is overly flawed? You can improve plot with character development by adding quirks, flaws and foibles. Often in character development, we create nearly perfect beings; or go in the other way and write caricatures that are almost cartoon-like with too many flaws. At times, characters that are over-the-top can be fun, but if over-used, the traits can feel tiresome, so strive for balance.
Screenwriters Offer Enhanced Reality
One technique to infuse your characters with a genuine personality is to borrow from your own life. We offer something more vivid than the real world, not virtual reality, rather enhanced reality. Ask yourself if your characters feel like real people, if not, lend them some of the reality around you.
It’s counterintuitive, but often what makes people interesting are our quirks, flaws and foibles – to a point. Flawless people are usually hiding something, like the Stepford Wives. Also, good habits are rarely as interesting as bad habits. List three things about yourself that could be termed mannerisms, traits or foibles – whether you like or dislike them is beside the point. Most of us can easily identify our own imperfections, whether physical habits, personality traits, or even vocal tics. Think then of those around you friends who talk to themselves, lisp, are overly trusting, speak loudly to foreigners, bite the ends of their hair, are always late, clean compulsively, cackle loudly, drink excessively.
Character flaws make us unique and can be used to create sympathy and empathy for a character, adding depth and dimension, connecting that person to the real world. Audiences relate to imperfect people.
When a character reveals their physical flaws, they are immediately open to scrutiny and therefore, judgment. Therefore, that judgment offers a moment in which that person can repel or draw empathy, sometimes both. These traits can be used to open characters up to outsiders, moving the plot forward interruptions that might be useful. Examples of physical habits and flaws could include anything from sly nose picking, favoring a limp from an old injury, earlobe pulling, a twitch, or random athletic stretching.
Movies Versus Real Life
Wait a minute, I want a larger-than-life heroine who’s perfect! OK, maybe, but since when was perfect all that interesting? Movies are reality with the boring parts snipped out, therefore, add flaws and foibles to develop your characters in a way that interests and amuses you, selectively use reality to add conflict and drama.
The Night Of - Flawed Character, John Stone
I don’t know if you watched, or are watching, The Night Of. (Alert: there are no plot spoilers here but we do discuss the character, if you don’t want to read this, jump ahead 3 paragraphs to Tomb Raider). This episodic show stars John Turturro as John Stone, a character who is gripping in this episodic show that previewed on HBO. John Stone is a fascinating character, more for his flaws and foibles, than for his excellence.
Context: John Turturro is a bottom-feeding lawyer in New York City who takes quick cash and gets criminals out of jail until they are tried, along the lines of an ambulance chaser. He doesn’t linger in the morality and ethics of his client’s behavior. He doesn’t want to know too much. So if the perp did the crime, he doesn’t judge, he just wants the money.
The writer develops his character with other personality quirks. We learn that he is divorced; he's messy. His relationship with his son is strained. These are incidental, but his eczema, an unsightly skin condition that causes him to itch all the time, is not. This condition consists of a scaly, red rash that is so uncomfortable he can’t even wear shoes. Stone walks around in his brown lawyer suit, wearing sandals revealing raw scabs on his feet and ankles. Gross, but effective. To make himself even more repulsive to those around him, he scratches at his feet often. There is so much about this character to dislike, but his dogged acceptance and perseverance in a thankless job, and facing his skin condition, end up giving him the tenacity to persist in a case that is over his head.
How does the character development of Stone suffering eczema improve the plot, in a few ways, it makes us like and dislike the attorney, simultaneously. Eczema forces other characters to react, comment, repelling his colleagues. His skin condition forces empathy and humor, ultimately serving as a sideline plot. Watch the show to see how it works out!
Tomb Raider - Perfect Character, Lara Croft
Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider plays Lara Croft, a character that seems to have no character flaws, foibles, or quirks. The character in the game Tomb Raider, from which the movie came from, offers the seemingly blank slate of a beautiful archeologist hunting treasure.
Lara Croft is a skilled fighter, analytical and knowledgeable, cool as a cucumber in the face of… everything. Her emotions seem spare, the development of the character could be viewed as a one-dimensional. She is obsessive, an archeologist seeking hidden artifacts. In effect, the movie stayed true to the game. The heroine which offers the audience someone to project their vision onto. In effect, the first impression is deceptive, because Lara Croft’s character flaws are more subtle in nature, her egotistical, tom-boy persona and aloof exterior masks a ruthless devotion to her father’s memory. She will stop at nothing, so her defiance and cockiness aid her in prevailing against odds in the story, an example of what could be seen as character flaws are used ultimately as assets.
How To Improve Plot With Character Development
There are several ways to improve plot with character development:
- Pick just a quirk for your hero, love interest, or villain
- What reaction do other characters have to it
- Use it to force that character to act
- Use this forced action move the plot
- If the trait is fixed or resolved, will it change the plot
Character Flaws are Seasoning
In conclusion, the best way to improve plot with character development is to imbue your hero and villain with flaws, habits and personality traits that will force them to act. These actions can be used to move the story forward, to distract an audience, create distance and disgust or spur empathy. Experiment with a few of these on a character to see how it works, but remember that tics, habits and foibles are seasoning on top of a solidly constructed character.
- More articles by Paula Landry
- Story Development: How Plot Can Kill Your Character
- Great Characters: Channeling the Genius of Actors
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