Script Coverage Chronicles -- May 2014: Three Common Character Mistakes

I've read hundreds of first drafts, and I see the same characterization mistakes again and again. Here are three of them:

1.  The Many-Sided Monster                 

I'll start with a controversial statement.  You need to write one-dimensional characters.  Yes.  You heard me right.  Your characters should have one dimension.  Let me explain:

Screenwriting 101 taught you to write multi-dimensional characters.  That’s not incorrect.  But it can be misleading advice.  It’s misleading because it skips a step.  

Seeking to create multi-dimensional human beings, many new writers give their characters numerous conflicting traits.  But when no one trait stands out, a character is an inscrutable mess with nothing for the reader to hold onto.

What you need to do is first create a clear, readily identifiable one-dimensional character (the by-the-book cop, the maverick, the stoner).   Then and only then should you carefully build in a character’s nuances.  If that first dimension isn’t there, the other dimensions present no surprise, no interest.  If that first dimension isn’t there, you don’t have a multi-dimensional character.  You’ve got no dimensions.
You don’t have a character at all.

2.  The Whiny Loser

We’ve all heard the business about petting the dog.  We all know it’s important for protagonists to be likeable.  Still, a surprising number of writers make their main characters whiny downers.

It may be because we writers also know that our characters are supposed to grow during the story.  So we start them out with flaws they’ll spend two hours fixing.   

The thing is, these flaws need to be likeable flaws:

The guy who works too hard at his job but needs balance.  The innovator who thinks for himself but needs to learn teamwork.   The truly considerate doormat who needs more backbone. 

There’s a reason these flaws get used over and over.  Audiences don’t hate these characters in Act One. 

“What about Tony Soprano?” you ask?   “How about Frank Underwood from House of Cards?”   Why are they not unlikeable?  Audiences are willing to forgive ambitious killers.  But whiny losers -- not a chance.

3.  The “Sixth Sense” Mystery Man

Sometimes writers want to show that one of their characters has some sort of disorder or condition or other complex character trait.  But they never come out and say it or show it directly.  Instead they feed the reader a series of subtle clues. 

For example, in one script I read, a character kept thinking things were too loud, failed to make eye contact and acted in inexplicably strange ways.  The writer needed to explain, outside the confines of the script, that this character had Asperger’s. The thing is, the story didn’t make sense until I knew this fact.

Was this a reading comprehension problem?  An intelligent reader will put subtle clues together, right?


The reason the famous twist in the The Sixth Sense works so well is because audiences (and screenplay readers) don’t put clues together.  They do it so poorly that a writer can count on them not doing it when setting up surprises. 

Unless you don’t want your reader to pick up on the truth about your character until the big reveal at the end, don’t rely on subtle clues to get a character trait across.  If you want your audience to know this character, don’t be subtle.  Readers have absolutely no sixth sense about such things.

By the way, the writer who wrote the script I offered as an example is far from a hack.  He’s actually very talented.  It’s just hard sometimes to get out of your own head and into the heads of your readers. 

That’s why feedback is so important.