To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. It's updated with every new tip, so bookmark that baby.
Writers are notorious for being insecure. We have a reputation, maybe thanks to Hemingway, of being drunk and anti-social. We like solitude, don't like showers, and are happy living in our pajamas.
Guilty as charged.
But what makes writers great is our imaginations. We create worlds that could not possibly exist, like those of the Star Wars and Harry Potter series. Maybe it's because we'd rather live in our imaginary worlds than the real ones. Who can blame us when screenwriters are the lowest rung on the totem pole?
Getting real with your writing.
I've written about the value of therapy a lot. I don't suggest that lightly as some PC-tip for writers. I mean it. I believe in asking for help, collaborating with someone to push your growth, and having a person you can lean on when you think you can't take one more step.
And... I just described what it's like to have a writing partner. Yes, I have one of those, too.
Being honest about our weaknesses makes us stronger. I've given a lot of notes to writers over the years. (No, please do not send me your script.) The most common notes I give go something like this, "You're protecting your protagonist. I don't care about them. They're boring."
"Boring." That's a word that stings because the writer often relates too much to their protagonist. Therefore, if they get a note calling their character "boring," they hear, "you are boring." So, they immediately get defensive about notes, especially that one. Whenever a note hits too close to home, too close to their own personal wound, the writer typically recoils.
That is something you must get over. Seriously. Get over it.
Does that mean you can't be insecure and be a writer? Hell, no. It means you have to be willing to rip open your wounds and hand someone the salt shaker. Writing is exactly that. We pour our hearts onto the page, writing with the "door shut," as Stephen King suggests in his amazing book, On Writing. "Writing with the door shut" means we bleed on the page, not worrying about anyone else's eyes reading, and judging, our work... or us.
For this exercise, let's pretend selling your screenplay or book doesn't matter. If you could be assured no one would ever read your work, how deep would you go? How far would you push the creative boundaries? How far would you push yourself?
My father passed last year. In a cardboard box labeled "Career," I found a note he wrote to himself in the late 1970s when he was in Tehran, Iran, working for the United Nations, helping the Iranian government create a budget. It was right before 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Iran. A very turbulent time in the world. He was 51 and took this side gig with the UN to save money for college tuition for his four children. It was his third trip there. His need and want was simply to provide for his family. This was how far he was willing to go to succeed at his goal. He'd go for weeks at a time. In that note, he spoke of all the insecurities and frustrations he felt—he was scared. Terrified. His handwriting even changed. He started with capital letters, then, as his vulnerabilities and fears rose, he switched to lowercase. His hotel was bombed, he felt hostility and resistance from the Iranians he was trying to help, he felt... well, I won't go into his emotional pain, but trust me when I tell you, he wrote that note as if no one would ever read it, least of all me.
But I read it. Now, I'll never forget it. I will never, ever forget the emotions I felt reading the words of a man who presented such strength to the world, but alone in that Iranian hotel room, with the door shut, was willing to reveal his fears and demons and speak the truth. His truth. He would do anything to provide for his family, even risk his life.
That is raw and honest storytelling. I was griped. I was moved. I could relate to him in a way I never related to him before.
That is what you need to do. Write like no one will ever read it.
Where do you start?
You are your character's biggest obstacle. You. The person who birthed them. The person who is taking them on this journey. You are the only one who can make them everything they should be. You.
Start with the tip I gave in a previous article in this series, pay attention to what makes you cry. That is where your wounds are. Those are the areas to start poking. It's going to hurt, but I promise, the rewards will be worth it.
By protecting your characters, you are only protecting yourself. You might fear ripping open their wounds and then an exec telling you that your character is "boring," which makes you feel boring. You aren't boring. Inside you is a literary, and possibly tortured genius, waiting to come out. You hold the keys to the emotional prison cell you have trapped your characters in. Set them free by setting yourself free.
The only way to create compelling characters is to be brave enough to crawl into your own head, analyze yourself, rip your wounds open and see where it takes you... and your characters.
Being vulnerable is scary, so is change. But you are seeking out writing advice because you want to evolve and grow. When you evolve with your characters, there is no going back for either of you. Your writing will forever change, and all of your future stories and characters will thank you. Your future manager will thank you, too.
Now that you know you are the true key to character development, you might want to peek back at some of the lessons of the past 30 days and change some things. Go ahead, shut the door and start bleeding. I'll be right here, virtually holding your hand. You got this.
DAY 1: Character Goals - The first step of understanding how to develop your character is to understand their goals. What is their want? Start your 30 days of writing exercises with these tips.
DAY 2, 3 and 4: Creating Character Backstories - Diving deep into creating characters' backstories not only helps you create roles actors want to play, but also creates more opportunities for interesting plot points and conflict.
DAY 5: Read Screenplays - How to Find Professional Screenplays to Download - Great movies have great characters. The best way to learn how to write a screenplay is to read screenplays written by professionals. Get an extensive list of resources to find screenplays online to help you develop compelling characters.
DAY 6 and 7: How to Identify Your Character's Inner Wounds - A character's inner wound not only grounds the story, but also provides valuable information for creating plot points full of conflicts to push your character. Explore ways to identify your character's inner wounds.
DAY 8: What is Your Character Afraid Of? - Exploring the fears of your characters is an essential step in character development. Why are they so afraid to face those fears?
DAY 9, 10 and 11: Meet the Bad Guy - Antagonists toss road blocks in front of our protagonists. They're the most important source of story conflict. Learn writing exercises to help elevate your antagonists and add more conflict to your stories.
DAY 12: Naming Your Characters - Unlike parents, who name their children before ever meeting them, writers can name a character after they've explored their psyches. Get tips on naming your characters.
DAY 13 and 14: Avoid 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. Learn tips to avoid cliché characters and actions.
DAY 15, 16, 17 and 18: Comfort, Revenge, Fear and Power - Developing our characters to their fullest requires deep exploration of character motivations. Get tips on pushing characters out of their comfort zones, discovering their potential for revenge, fear and power.
DAY 19, 20, 21 and 22: Supporting Characters - Supporting characters "support" the protagonist, the theme and the overall story. Learn how to create supporting characters who serve your story.
DAY 23, 24 and 25: Theme, Setup and Payoff - Great storytelling involves characters that captivate the reader. Get tips for connecting your characters to the story's theme and using their choices to establish an effective setup and payoff.
DAY 26, 27 and 28: How Character Evolution Impacts Story Structure - Stories are only as interesting as the characters in them. Get advice on using character evolution to create powerful story structure whether you're an outliner or a pantser.
DAY 29: Writing Character Introductions and Dialogue - Get more tips for character development with examples of movie openings and character introductions to inspire, and tips for writing authentic dialogue.
DAY 30: Your Character's Biggest Obstacle Isn't What You Think - The most important element of character evolution is revealed in the final lesson of the "30 Days of Character Development" series. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.