30 Days of Tips for Character Development: Theme, Setup and Payoff

Great storytelling involves characters that captivate the reader. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips for connecting your characters to the story's theme and using their choices to establish an effective setup and payoff.
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Karate Kid

Karate Kid

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.

What is a great story? For me, it's a story that takes me on a journey where I meet interesting characters who I might not meet in real life, and whose experiences emotionally move and entertain me in a way that makes me ponder the plot and characters long after their journey completes. 

You know, the kind of movies that make you stop and watch whenever you stumble upon them while channel surfing. 

Characters' actions and motivations drive a story. A story also conveys some sort of larger message in its theme. Understanding how your character would behave in different circumstances aides the writer in creating plot points that drive that character into an action that supports the story's theme.  

[Script Extra: Learning to Write to Theme with the Last Jedi]

Day 23: Let Your Characters Explore the Theme

Why am I talking about theme when we're supposed to be creating characters? Because your characters tell the story, and that story has a theme. If you don't know the theme of your own story, your character, and their mission, will get lost.

What is theme? On Writer's Digest, Scott Francis shares this advice: 

"Writers disagree on the exact definitions, but here’s one explanation: A theme is the message an author imparts to his readers through the plot and characters in his story. The writer starts with an idea, and as his story develops, it is influenced by his own philosophy or observation of the human condition. This is his theme. A story problem is the vehicle by which an author presents his theme. For instance, the problem facing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is getting home to Kansas. Through her trials and adventures in the Land of Oz, she realizes her folly in wanting to run away from home in the first place, and finally decides “there’s no place like home,” which is the overall theme of the story."

What are you trying to say? What do you want readers to think about after they've read your screenplay? 

For example, in the "Tortoise and the Hare," the theme is "slow and steady wins the race." How you convey that theme plays out in the characters. The rabbit is fast, but the tortoise is slow, yet still manages to win. If you didn't know your theme before writing, you wouldn't know how your characters were supposed to behave. If the rabbit wins the race right out of the gate simply because he's fast, your theme would be lost, no lesson learned, and Aesop wouldn't have a fable.

Extra Tip: Theme should be evident in supporting characters and subplots, too.

Decide on your story's theme. Here's an article that might help: Types of Stories, Plot Types, Themes and Genres.

Day 24: Do You Have the Right Protagonist?

Look at the supporting characters and go through the exercises in the beginning (the full list of exercises are here), as if the story was theirs… because maybe it should be. Maybe the person you thought was the protagonist/antagonist isn’t worthy.

Is there a better person to center your story around? Is there a better character to deliver on the theme of your story? 

A rightful outcry on a lack of diversity and female representation in lead roles led to twists on classics like Ghostbusters and Ocean's 8, reframing them with female leads. Films should be a slice of real life, representing all ethnicities and genders. That doesn't mean you can never write a white male as a lead again. The point is, choose a protagonist who will serve your story to its fullest. Don't limit your options based on the ages and genders of leads of the past. 

The choices your character makes are largely based on their life experiences. Every decision brings a risk. Every single one. How they cope, which we explored in Day 6: How to Find Your Characters Inner Wound, determines the choices they make. 

Which brings us to the heart of it all...

Day 25: How do your characters react, emotionally? 

No two people are the same, therefore, when writers fall back on cliché character choices, they are not only being lazy, but they're also defying nature. 

How people respond to conflict reveals something about them. The more conflict you throw at your characters, the more your audience learns about them. Those choices also present opportunities to create empathy, allowing your reader to identify with your character. Your readers will even start anticipating the character's choices.

Each choice by your character should bring them closer to their transformational arc. One step at a time. Sometimes that step will throw them backwards, but it's those backward steps that propel someone to understand the need for, and value of, change. Don't go easy on them! They are terrified of change and you have to push them off a cliff!

People rarely change unless they absolutely have to. And people absolutely have to change in order to achieve new goals that propel them into a new, scary world.

So... give them the tools they need to change.

Here's a great clip of Michael Hauge explaining the hero's inner journey versus the outer journey better than I ever could. Michael also has a great DVD with Chris Vogler called The Hero's 2 Journeys. It's a resource on my must-watch list. 

Setups and payoffs.

You can use character choices as a way to create setups and payoffs. In a setup, you drop a piece of information about the character, like how they make choices or a skillset they may have (or both), so that later in the story, the audience will know (and believe) they can overcome the obstacle and succeed in their goals.

Drew Yanno gives some great examples of setups and payoffs here.

In order to believe the setup, we need to see the evolution of your character—how they process problems, what their skills are—how they learn.

Here's another clip of Michael Hauge explaining the power of foreshadowing to make a character's actions believable. 

Now for your homework...

Rewind to Day 11, where we explored the Bad Guys. We made 2 lists: 

1. Write down anything the antagonist could do to keep the protagonist from achieving their outer goal. If their goal is to rescue someone from captivity, list all the ways a person could stop someone from doing that. Don't worry about details, or even if your idea isn't possible. Write it down!

2. List all the things the antagonist could do to poke the hornet’s nest of the protagonist and pick at their wound. This list is harder, because it's a psychological game. My favorite kind.

Time to expand this list. Now imagine how the protagonist chooses to react to everything on those lists and what skillset they have to overcome those obstacles.

These are brainstorming lists. Streams of consciousness. Don't judge your characters (or yourself) during these exercises. By the way, making a choice to judge someone is a choice. Why would someone choose to be judgmental? Simmer on that for a bit, especially during these hyper-judgmental social-media times. We might need a gigantic therapy couch to explore that one, and way more than 30 days.

Back to your characters. Every obstacle your Bad Guy tosses out, your character will have to make a choice. Every decision they make brings a risk, but it also presents an opportunity to overcome their inner wound and take a step toward evolution.

Every obstacle and choice creates a path for setup and payoff. Jot down ideas for planting setups in your story to establish ways your character can "win" in the end.

If the antagonist list isn't challenging your protagonist enough, then brainstorm the absolute worst thing in the world that character would have to do to achieve their goal. I refer you to the pilot episode of Breaking Bad.

What is your protagonist paying lip service to? Whatever that is, is keeping them from achieving their goal. They will never overcome their fatal flaw until they finally confront their fears, choosing to take the risk of change.

Ken Burns says, "I believe it's an artist's duty to lead people into hell, but it's also their duty to lead them out." You can't nudge them over a teeny speed bump and have a compelling story and satisfying ending. Go big, or go home. Lead them into their deepest fears, and give them tools to not only survive, but thrive. 

Next up: How Character Evolution Impacts Story Structure

Read the full series 30 Days of Tips for Character Development

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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