Wasted Potential: Casting Your Production

>> Monday, June 6, 2011

Huh, I wish. Actually, no, creating characters is much easier than casting a play or movie (in that you're not limited by who's available or cost or such mundane things as race or gender or species for that matter), but, like world-building, much harder because you have to know/create your characters to a much deeper extent than is ever shown on paper, kind of everything that holds up the visible part of the iceberg (character) in your story.

On the other hand, it's fun.

Nothing kills a great idea faster than flat colorless characters. As a writer, you want characters that will get the most out of your idea. Using a great character that's conflicts with the idea is doubly wasteful, waste of a character and an idea, so characters should mesh readily with the idea. But they also need to be alive and have some sort of appeal (note, that doesn't mean they can't be assholes—more on that later). I don't have hard and fast rules on what kind of characters fit what kind of ideas. I think there's a certain level of trial and error, and any idea can be handled in multiple ways. A fun and whimsical idea can be done justice with a fun and whimsical hero/heroine, but a staid down-to-earth character, surrounded by insanity, can be just as effective in showcasing whimsy. In a similar manner, weighty powerful ideas can be furthered with properly built flighty airheads just like they can with somber individuals.

I've talked about characters before, so I'll be relatively brief. These are my own guidelines I think about when I'm building someone or would if I bothered to think in such an organized manner.

Can't be too perfect. A likeable character has to have room to grow because stagnation is not appealing. Nor is it likely to make the most of a concept. Ideally, he or she never actually becomes "perfect" because perfect is also boring and off-putting. People like to identify with characters, find some hook in the character that they can empathize with. Truly "perfect" people rarely appeal to anyone but self-important jerks. Unless that's your target audience, you need to give your character weaknesses, failings, and flaws.

And they have to be significant. The bigger, badder and more impressive your character is, the more debilitating their flaws need to be unless you want the reader to start rooting for the bad guy (which has it's own appeal - think Megamind). Let's face it, if Superman were a real character, he'd be an insufferable boor. His attachment to certain people, his excessive notion of personal responsibility and, of course, Kryptonite are the only reasons he can be tolerated. Everyone has something they fear. Everyone has something they can't bear to lose (and, if they don't, that's a tragic failing in and of itself).

Personally, the bigger and badder someone is physically, the more debilitating I like their mental issues to be whereas someone who's not quite so dangerous may be stalwart to the nth degree mentally., but that's just what I like.

Can't be a complete and utter turnoff. I'm not saying your hero can't be an asshole. There have been any number of successful asshole protagonists, but I maintain they need to have some appealing quality. If you're going to have an asshole as your lead, at least make him smart (witty's even better). Stupid assholes are notably short on charm. Or give him a soft spot, a line even he won't cross, hell, an embarrassing fetish. If you're going to have an idiot protagonist (and it can be done successfully), at least make him sweet. Making an idiot him stupidly lucky, patient and tolerant often goes a long way to making him palatable. Brash abrasive characters can have a tough history, a vicious sense of humor, or an untouchable core of honor. Maybe all three.

You're going to spend a lot of time with this character. You'd better like something about him or her. Your reader is, too, so you need to share those endearing bits. If the character is too off-putting, few will stick it out to find out how your idea pans out.

Make somebody funny. Even the weightiest topics can often do better with a bit of humor, without losing the sense of importance. Humor keeps things from becoming unreasonably weighty. It helps keep necessary plot building sequences entertaining. It provides contrast and charm, even if your main characters are short on both. It doesn't have to be laugh out loud or even constantly funny, but I've never known a book to suffer because of a judicious laugh or two in the mix.

One way, by the way, to make an otherwise unappealing character appealing is to make them funny, even if it's only once in a while. Or to provide them a cohort with some measure of absurdity.

Make them act real, in believable ways. Few things muddy a character like forcing them down a path at odds with their character. (Qui-Gon Jinn, from Episode I of Star Wars comes to mind and Liam Neeson knew it. You can see the distaste on his face when he had to do something out of character and/or stupid). That doesn't mean they can't ever do something "out of character" - real people do, but there needs to be a reason (even if you don't share it with the reader, you need to know it), one that works for the character as opposed to a reason like "furthering the plot."

The characters can be stupid, make mistakes, show poor judgement. In fact, if that's their character, you must have them behave so, just like you'll have to show evidence of cleverness if that's what they're supposed to be (saying they're clever isn't enough). I'm not saying what they do has to be good or bad. Most actions, however, have to be in keeping with who they are. Doing otherwise too much will blur your character out of focus.

Ah, I love this topic.


  • Jeff King

    Thx for sharing... a lot of great points there, I'm going back to reread it.

  • Shakespeare

    Chuck Wendig, Penmonkey, just wrote about 25 things to do with characters. He values them, too, and his advice was pretty cool.

    I'm glad you brought up the Star Wars example. So often characters do things to further the plot but which have absolutely nothing to do with their characters. Or their motivations are stated, but they don't really make any sense, or are disconnected from the action. As if the elements don't really go together at all.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Got a link? I'll check it out.

  • Project Savior

    One great difference between creating characters and casting a play is if two characters don't have chemistry you can rewrite one until they do.
    A character can be great but if all your other characters are reacting "wrong" around that character it wastes that potential.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Reading my mind there, Project.

    It ain't just the characters; it's the relationships between the characters. Which is coming up.

  • Relax Max


  • Anonymous

    This entire blog entry reminds me of House, MD - the quintessentially flawed yet wise, witty (and even a little charming) asshole.  The show is rather instructive to character developers.  His character was so brilliantly designed that little substance was required of the interacting/supporting characters. 

    Fortunately, the female doctor "13" was provided some serious depth and it helped create more interesting emotional interactions.   Mike Hawthorne

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