Blog reader Joe Sola recently asked me via email if I would discuss differentiating characters. I’ve talked a lot about developing the individual character and about giving each character a distinctive voice. But much of voice comes out of deeper aspects of character, and I haven’t talked much about creating characters that will play off of each other in interesting and dramatic ways. Most movies, of course, rely on multiple characters interacting with each other to create drama. And if you’re writing an ensemble or team movie, that’s going to be all the more critical.
The first thing to point out is that the same techniques I use to develop my main character will be used for all the other major characters. Chief among these is identifying what they want within the context of the story. What goal is driving them? What is at stake for them in the outcome of the story? For some I will also identify an underlying psychological need – giving them their own internal journal or character arc.
Often the above decisions are derived from and/or create much of the conflict in the film. If there’s a villain character or a rival character, for example, their goal should be in opposition to our hero’s goal. That becomes one of the major obstacles to our hero’s success.
I will also write at least a few lines on each of the three dimensions – physiological, psychological and sociological – for every significant character. And here’s the first place where significant characterization differences between them will likely appear. The older, wealthy industrialist should act and speak differently from the young, idealistic artist.
If you find you have several characters who are too similar, which is a common problem since the world of your story will likely contain similar people, this is a good starting place to find distinctions.
Let’s say you’re writing a story about a group of coal miners. There will be obvious similarities – it may not be plausible to have the coal miner with a PhD from a wealthy family. But too often our first instinct is to have every miner conform to some stereotype in our head – they’re all in their twenties, big and brawny, uneducated, lusty beer drinkers.
But do they have to be? In real life some miners are young while others are older. Some are married, some single, some divorced. Many are probably big and brawny but I bet there are a few short guys and skinny guys working in mines as well. That might affect how they interact with their fellow miners. It’s likely few miners will be highly educated but that doesn’t mean their intellectual level is the same. One might be a real moron, another smart (but unschooled), a third with average I.Q. but going to night school to try to improve himself. Maybe one of the miners is a sex-crazed alcoholic while another is a teetotaler Christian fundamentalist. Maybe one is gay.
In your outlining phase take some time to consider the range possible in the various physiological, psychological and sociological elements of your characters. Are you using the whole range? Pushing a character farther or in an unexpected direction can open up all kinds of depth in your story.
Let’s look at an example: the three brothers in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). There are necessarily a lot of sociological similarities, so the characters are primarily differentiated in the psychological range. Sonny is a hothead, Michael is thoughtful and confident, and Freddy is nervous and avoids conflict. Michael is further differentiated in that he’s the only brother who fought in the war, where he was a hero, and that he wants to get out of the family business. These simple distinctions have huge effects on the characters’ behavior – and their ultimate fate.
The more specific you are here the better. Specificity makes the characters feel like real people. Think about your friends or your coworkers. How do you differentiate them? It’s the specific details of their characters, isn’t it? Creating clearly distinct characters makes them more believable which in turn makes the audience care about them.
But in fiction we want to do more than just capture reality, we want to bring a point of view to the proceedings. Our stories are organized around a theme or subject or idea. You can improve both your characters and your story’s thematic depth if you differentiate the characters by giving each a different attitude or point of view on the subject matter.
Look at the different attitudes of the three main characters in Ghost Busters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis): Egon is intellectual, pursuing the ghosts out of a purely academic interest. Ray exhibits a childlike excitement about the prospect of ghosts. And Venkman is the sarcastic skeptic who initially doesn’t really care about the paranormal at all; he just wants to meet coeds. These different attitudes toward ghosts make the characters distinct within the subject/world of the story.
Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) provides an even better example. There are a lot of characters to develop. Thematically, the story is about winning and losing. And each character approaches success and failure in a distinctive way that affects their behavior and voice.
The father, Richard, believes there are winners and losers and that anyone can be a winner with the right plan. Olive approaches her desire to be a beauty queen with innocence and optimism and almost no self-doubt. Her brother is pursuing his goal with a methodical and single-minded purpose. Grandpa has rejected traditional definitions of success and is focused on enjoying his remaining years. Mom is just trying to keep her head above water and wishes Richard would be more help. And the uncle is suicidal, having given up all hope of achieving his goals.
I hope that’s helpful, and I’d like to thank Joe for the question. If you have a topic you’d like me to discuss, feel free to send an email or make a comment. I make no promises – I’m not a jukebox – but I am always looking for ideas for posts.