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Script Angel: Giving Your Characters A Hard Time

Hayley McKenzie challenges you to push your characters to their limits in order to create compelling stories.

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

I’ve written here before about the importance of creating memorable characters  and the next step is making sure that your story gives your fabulous characters a really hard time.

Creating original characters is a strange process and is different for every writer, but what most writers share is that over the course of that process they’ve fallen in love with their characters, with all their flaws, as if they were their own children. I think you kind of have to love your characters because if you don’t, it really shows on the page, and if you don’t love your characters, how can you expect an audience to?

Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind'

Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind'

Sometimes it’s a process that the writer and I have gone through together; developing a character that we both fall in love with, discovering what we like about them, what it is about them that drives us mad, talking about them as if they’re real people. [Gotta love this job, right?!]

But too often writers are over-protective of their characters and are much too soft when they should be making their characters’ life a misery. Think of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness – that true story works because you love this guy, he’s a trier, he loves his kid, you desperately want things to go well for him, but the very opposite happens – life heaps disaster after disaster on him. The joy of the story, and of that happy ending, lies in having watched this guy really suffer.

I recently heard storytelling described as the study of the psychology of character under stress (Dr Raj Persaud), and I couldn’t agree more. You might think it’s only in the horror genre that you need to be cruel to your characters, devising unspeakably awful ways to make them suffer physically and/or psychologically. But the same is true in any genre.

If it’s an action movie, make it physically tough for your protagonist – like Ethan Hunt hanging off a sheer cliff face in Mission: Impossible II – you watch that and think that has got to hurt. If it’s a thriller, be sure to terrify your protagonist. If it’s a drama, take away the things s/he loves the most. The better you know your character, and in particular their weaknesses, the meaner you can be. What’s your character’s worst nightmare? Now inflict that on them.

The old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, is true for movies. We want to see a character go through hell and come out of the ordeal stronger, having learned something about life, about the people around them and about themselves.

Being able to take a step back from your character can give you the distance you need to really put them through it. It can also allow you to ask that difficult question of all but your lead couple of characters. It’s a question I’ve had to ask writers many times over the years, sometimes for story reasons, sometimes for production and budgetary reasons. “I know Pete is a great character but do we need him?” Of course, I can easily imagine that film or TV episode without Pete because for me it’s not personal. But often for my writers it’s like being asked to kill one of their children! The first response is almost always, “No, Hayley, we can’t cut him because…” and I say, "OK, so let’s try and make him work better for the story.” And sometimes we find a way to use the character better and sometimes in those few days of thinking about it, the writer has begun, slowly, to imagine this work without that beloved character and reaches the same drastic conclusion I did – that character has got to go.

Writing is a peculiar mix of the creative and the analytical. Characters created without passion are forgettable but then you’ve got to step back from them and figure how best to make them suffer because it’s only in seeing characters we love put through terrible ordeals, whether they be physical or psychological or emotional, and come out the other side stronger, that we are really engaged.

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