My final interview for this character development series will be with writer Karen Stillman. Karen wrote the TV movies Smoke Screen, They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?, Dangerous Child and Hit and Run. I worked with her on a web series for the Zoopid website. She is currently completing a 1950s period project about the testing of the then-illegal birth control pill.
Q. What is required for a compelling character?
There has to be something so interesting about him/her, you just have to know what he's going to do next. Is he a pathological liar? Is he funny? Unpredictable? Does he have a ridiculous goal? An embarrassing conflict or obstacle? And then, when this thing is clearly established, it has to u-turn. He stops lying, isn't so funny, foregoes his ridiculous goal, his embarrassing conflict/obstacle turns on its head.
Also, details help. House has a limp. Columbo always wore an old raincoat. The kid on THE MIDDLE whispers to himself. But you have to choose them carefully. I've seen writers underwrite characters (too few details) and also overwrite them (so many, it's hard to tell what's important).
Q. What is your approach to building a character?
I like to start with the toilet paper test. Seriously. If this character were at a party and walked out of the bathroom and suddenly realized that he/she had toilet paper on his/her shoe, what would he/she do? Would he/she make a joke? Run away? Get mad? Ignore it? Loudly curse Charmin?
Then I do a little "stream of consciousness" writing. I put two characters in a scene and just start them talking, see where they go. Sometimes I write a few potential scenes from the middle of the script.
But before I truly start the draft, I need to know the character's goal, flaw and inevitable conflict/obstacle.
Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?
Depends on the character. If the script is heavily centered around something from the character's past, I need to know what it is, how it affected him, etc. But usually I need to plot out the story first. And I ask myself what in the character's past can I use to make this particular story more interesting.
Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?
Goal, flaw and obstacle. The most important of these three is the flaw. I recently started writing something and realized that the character wasn't that interesting—because I hadn't clearly defined his flaw in my head. It absolutely showed (or, I guess, didn't) on the page.
Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?
Sometimes people I know, sometimes I imagine an actor. In a character description I wouldn't compare my character directly to an actor. But I might say something like, "He has a face like Quasimodo but makes up for it with Clooney-esque charm."