There’s no such thing as a great screenplay with crappy characters. Yes—the plot is important. Something needs to happen, and in modern-American cinema, that something should involve a few surprises and unexpected twists in the road. But just for a minute, imagine YOUR favorite movie. Now take a second a get a mental image of the main character in this film. And finally—swap this character out for, say… Brendan Frasier. Or Brooke Shields. Unless your favorite movie is Furry Revenge (and statistically speaking, that is very unlikely...) you’ve probably just imagined a TOTAL TRAINWRECK.
Think about it—what is The Godfather without Michael Corleone? The Shawshank Redemption without Andy and Red? E.T. without, er… E.T.? The really wonderful movies achieve a perfect synthesis between story and character, and this balance must be present in any successful script.
How does a writer think up great characters? Well—some start by buying a stack of notebooks, and painstakingly writing out the life-histories, character traits, and quirky idiosyncrasies of spanking-new people that will one-day grace the pages of their script. I think of this as the “live-birth” method of character creation, and I’m not gonna knock it. It’s a (mostly) healthy process, and every writer should go through the steps of drawing-up a unique, entirely new character from scratch as many times as they can muster. It’s also an exercise that trains one’s imagination, and forces one to dig-deep into a character in way that will be hugely useful in crafting dialogue and navigating scenes down the road.
That said—there are HUNDREDS of great characters whose histories and quirks you already know! And with so much else to focus on in shaping a well-honed script, why not cut yourself a little slack once in a while, and just… KIDNAP THEM.
Seriously. What’s the harm? These are fictional beings we’re talking about!
There are two main methods for KIDNAPPING great characters:
1) Steal Them From Your Life
Unless you grew up in Canton, Texas, you’ve PROBABLY had an interesting life. And part of what’s made it interesting is the wonderful mixed-bag of people you’ve had the good pleasure OR poor misfortune of crossing paths with. So—put them in your script! Seriously. Just plug them right in. Don’t even worry about hiding the fact that your dad has become the star of your screenplay, or modifying the crazy boss you had in college.
Really now—who do you know better than your own relatives? Your friends? These are characters you know down deep in your blood, and they’re the characters whose motivations and speaking-styles you will never need to second-guess. So use them! Drawing from the cast of characters close to your life will make your script easier to write, and ultimately more authentic-feeling. And don’t fret—as your script develops, so too will your characters. By the time you’ve finished, even those closest to you will have a hard time recognizing that the infantile psycho serial killer in your script is actually just a thinly-veiled remake of your freshman year roommate.
2) Steal Them From Books, TV, and the Movies
What, what, what?? Steal intellectual property? Okay—no. That’s not exactly what I’m saying. Don’t write a character of less-than-average intelligence with a loving mom and a relentlessly positive outlook on life, then name your script Florice Glump. What I’m talking about is borrowing characters, just like I suggested that you borrow characters from your own life in the example above.
Seriously—try it out. Next time you’re in a slump, and need a great character to spice up your script, why not plug in Tony Soprano? Or Nurse Ratchet? Or Seinfeld? What would they say in this situation? What would they do? Using characters you love (or love to hate) from television, films and books is a great method for getting over creative hurtles, and infusing your characters with greater clarity and specificity. And once again—as your script develops, so too will your characters. Their lines will change. Their quirks will evolve. And when you’re all done, these characters will have become totally new entities.
Kidnapping characters is not the end-all of character creation, but it sure is a damn useful tool. Hell—writers have been doing this for centuries. Who are Romeo & Juliet but the Greek characters Pyramus and Thisbe? What makes Luke Skywalker any different from King Arthur (think about that one—it’ll shock you)? And who is Don Draper if not James Bond WITHOUT a license to kill?
Call it what you will – ‘recycling’, ‘borrowing’ or ‘theft’ – but character re-use is a foundation of storytelling (I don’t even want to get going on the BIBLE). So use it! You’ll be amazed how much quicker character development will become when you stop brainstorming—and start KIDNAPPING.