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30 Days of Tips for Character Development: Avoiding Cliché Characters and Actions

Hollywood wants "the same, but different" not only in the story ideas you pitch, but also in the characters you create. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares advice on avoiding cliché characters and actions.

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To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. The post is updated with every new tip so you can keep track of all the character creation advice.

Welcome to Day 13 of exploring your characters. I'm sure some of you are wondering why I'm spending so much time giving tips for creating characters, but it's time well worth spent. Characters are the foundation of your stories, especially if you're writing for TV. I urge you not to rush through these exercises. 

Now for Day 13: Stop everything! 

Yeah, I know I just said to keep doing the exercises, but now that you know your characters more, go back to the beginning and take out anything that’s cliché. For example, if your character is a writer, don't make them a drunk in their pajamas. Okay, maybe that would be 100% accurate during the COVID lockdown, but you get what I mean. 

Hollywood likes "the same, but different" when it comes to story ideas. That works for characters, too. 

In Django Unchained, Tarantino created fantastic characters, including a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. How did he make him the "same, but different"? 

Dr. King Schultz (see how QT comes up with great names?) wasn't just a bounty hunter, he was a dentist who knew how to not only expertly kill, but also how to negotiate. Nothing predictable about this man. Plus, he treated Django well, unlike how most whites in that era would treat an escaped slave. 

Watch this clip. QT sets Schultz up in a way that makes the viewer know this is no ordinary bounty hunter. 

Did you elevate your own characters to the level that they are different from any others you've seen on screen? Then stop, go back, and rethink how you're setting your characters up. Resist the urge to create a certain type of character and put them in a too-often-seen box. 

Day 14: What will my character do? 

If my character is X, then they would behave like Y… or would they? 

Think about your character’s backstory and skill sets. How would those experiences impact their choices and actions?

Let's go back to Schultz. Did you expect him to shoot the sheriff? Maybe you did, but did you then expect him to say, "Now, get me the marshal"? I bet you're all wondering what he's going to do to the marshal. Shoot him? Maybe, but... maybe not. 

After watching that scene, we now know Dr. King Schultz has a method to his madness. And? He's one smart cookie. Smarter than the average bounty hunter, and smarter than his opponents. Which sets him up perfectly for later dealing with the plantation owner, Calvin Candie, who is holding Django's wife prisoner. What will he do? I'm thinking if you were reading this script, you wouldn't just toss it to the side after the sheriff/marshal scene. You'd want to keep reading to find out. 

What if you're writing a true story?

When I wrote the narrative adaptation of Slavery by Another Name, all I had to go by was the recorded actions of the real-life people during this period of time, the late 1800s and early 1900s. I couldn't interview their relatives or friends. I simply examined the actions they took and asked what kind of person would take those particular actions? People's personalities, strengths and weaknesses can be discovered by analyzing their behavior. Just look at people around you. I'm sure you've learned a lot about the people in your world during the COVID lockdown

When you figure out who your characters are, their character type will be evident. The choices those characters make in your story will impact who they become by the end. The less cliché those characters are, the more excited your readers and audience will be to see how the story unfolds, never feeling quite sure they can predict the outcome.

Next up, we keep pushing your characters... Comfort, Revenge, Fear and Power

Read the full series 30 Days of Tips for Character Development

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