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.
The last writing exercise emphasized creating characters who aren't cliche in both personality and actions. Let's spend the rest of the week doing a final push on the therapist couch for our protagonist and antagonist.
I know, I know. More therapy. Look, I'm not charging you a co-pay, so sit down and do the hard work. Your other option is to just dive in and write the first draft, like a pantser, and "learn" your characters as you go. That works well for some people, but what often happens with the pantser style is, by the time you really learn your character, you're halfway through the story, and then have to go back to the first Act and fix it. But if that works for you, by all means, do it. There is no right or wrong way to learn who your characters are. These exercises are simply tools I've used and found successful.
DAY 15: Push your characters outside their comfort zone.
When we choose to stay inside our comfort zones, we're also making a choice to resist change. Again, for your story to be interesting and compelling, your character must evolve in order to achieve their goal.
Are there successful stories without character evolution? Sure. But those are typically action or superhero movies. Unless you're writing one of those, you'll want your hero to grow.
[I wrote this piece for Writer's Digest magazine on Living and Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone that might help you and your characters.]
Let's get to brainstorming...
What would be the most uncomfortable thing your protagonist could be asked to do?
You should know your characters well enough to answer this question now.
Set a timer to 15 minutes and scribble down a list of anything your protagonist would rather die than do. Repeat this same exercise with your antagonist.
The purpose, beyond simply getting to know your characters better, is to give you potential plot points to use to elevate your story conflict.
DAY 16: Revenge is sweet.
Remember Robert McKee's philosophy that a person's character is defined by how they behave under pressure. When we push our characters up against a wall and they either feel trapped or attacked, that's a learning opportunity for them and you, as the writer.
Set that timer...
How far would your protagonist go for revenge?
How far would your protagonist go to keep the antagonist from achieving their goal?
How far would your antagonist go for revenge?
How far would your antagonist go to keep your protagonist from achieving their goal?
My guess is you'll learn they're both a lot more ballsy than you thought. Know how far your characters are willing to go to enact revenge or simply protect their own success.
DAY 17: Fears and Failure
I love Eleanor Roosevelt's statement, "Do one thing every day that scares you."
Facing your fears is one thing, but being afraid of something you can't control is another. One thing a person cannot control (or own) is the actions of others. Learning and accepting you cannot control someone else's hurtful behavior will change your life. But since you're the writer, you can control how your characters behave.
Everyone fears what is beyond our control, like losing someone or something.
What (or whom) is your protagonist most afraid of losing?
What (or whom) is your antagonist most afraid of losing?
A lot of people are simply afraid of failure. Explore what's behind that fear.
If your protagonist is afraid of failing, why?
Since we've talked about this film's characters before, think about Clarice from The Silence of the Lambs. This flashback might give you some insights.
DAY 18: Imagine if your protagonist and antagonist were locked (or quarantined) in a room together.
If you participate in social media, you've probably seen people speculating what the characters in The Office would be doing during COVID lockdown. We all know those characters so well that people who aren't even writers are coming up with hysterical scenarios. (Here's the Reddit thread, for your amusement.)
Imagine your protagonist and antagonist are locked in a room together, or simply in a scene where you aren't having them battle each other. It's a scene that should come long before the climax.
What would happen? What would they learn about each other, and which character would learn the most?
Let's look at the scene from Schindler's List between Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth where they discuss power, justice and pardoning. You can see the similarities between them—they each hold life in their hands, either by killing people or freeing them (they are mirror images of each other, as we discussed in Day 9). Note that at the beginning of the scene, they share what they've observed about each other, but by the end, you also see who has the real power.
This is one of my favorite scenes in Schindler's List. In a few sentences, Schindler described why the audience watched in fear, knowing the "justice" Goeth used was arbitrary and unpredictable. Schindler used that knowledge of Goeth to manipulate him brilliantly, and demonstrated to the audience not only the power he has over him, but also what an intoxicating drug power can be, for both of them. The subtextual layers in this one conversation are breathtaking.
Write that scene!
Learn about your characters by writing that scene of them together, even if it's a scene you never use in your script, write it. I've written plenty of scenes that end up in what I call a "discovery file" that had a sole purpose of allowing me to discover my characters. But snippets of those scenes, or just the dialogue, actually make it into some of my stories.
Bonus exercise: What makes you uncomfortable? What would the the one thing someone could ask you to do, that you know would help you be happier in the long run, but you just can't wrap your brain around doing... or have actively been avoiding it for years? You see where I'm going here, right?
What do you want the most and what is keeping you from achieving it? Write that down, and even write a scene of you with your personal antagonist. When we get to the outline phase, if you're brave enough, you can also outline your path to happiness. Just sayin'.
Next up: Supporting Characters