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Writing Great Characters for the Screen, Novels and Stage Plays – Part One

So what comes first – the development of fascinating and compelling characters? Or creating the world (or the story) in which the characters participate? It can work both ways, but you have a big advantage if you start with some unique and complex characters to begin with.

So, let’s jump in and look at a great movie that has some really juicy characters – “Silver Linings Playbook.” The screenplay was adapted by David O’Russel from a novel written by Matthew Quick. And, it’s the first time in 32 years that the lead actors got nominated for the Oscar in all four acting categories: Bradley Cooper for best actor, Jennifer Lawrence for best actress, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver for best supporting actor and actress. I strongly believe it’s because of the “characters” they got to embody and LIVE in, as well as interact with each other. Yes, all brilliant performances but it was delivered by a writer and director who created such complex, highly provocative, multi-layered, unpredictable, RAW, compelling and flawed, but oh-so-human characters to begin with.

There is NO story without these characters to propel it! If your characters are well defined enough they will help you inform and shape your story. They will start telling you how they want to behave, how they want to EXPRESS themselves and how they want to deal with challenges in the way of achieving what they want. Because every good character has a big “want”, something they want to accomplish, then they have to deal with all the obstacles and challenges in the way of them achieving that. So let’s take a look at these characters for a moment to see where all this “magic” stemmed from.

Let’s see, how complex can we make Bradley Cooper’s character Pat… hmm?? Let’s not just make him complicated – let’s make him bi-polar as well as obsessive compulsive! He has had to deal with emotional ups and downs his entire life, with WHITE KNUCKLE control of his anger, until he finds his wife in the shower with another man. BOOM, all his pent up rage explodes in psychotic fury and he almost kills his wife’s lover. That one outburst of fury destroys every aspect of his life; he loses his teaching job, he loses his home and he loses his wife. And that is all established at the beginning of the movie as he is getting discharged from a psychiatric ward!

So, naturally, he becomes obsessed with getting his emotions under control, getting healthy physically and emotionally, to focus on the “positive” and find the silver linings, so that he can get his life in order, so that he can get his wife NIKKI back. That becomes his driving force – his big “want”– Nikki, Nikki, Nikki. All that while dealing with the fact that he is bi-polar and not taking his meds. That character is just RIPE for one interesting challenge after another.

Since he is down and out, where else can he go to start his life all over? Into his parents house! So to add as much discomfort and conflict as possible, let’s make sure the father (Robert DeNiro’s character) has his own unique quirks and obsessions that keep him from being emotionally available to his complex son growing up. He’s obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles and is a compulsive bookmaker who is no longer allowed in the stadium because he got banned after engaging in too many rage-filled fights at the football games. Like father, like son. Great set up. It’s also quite profound to see the walls between them gradually collapse as they bond in other ways, besides watching Eagles games together.

While Pat is obsessed with getting Nikki back – Life is making other plans… In walks Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany, who has also dealt with emotional issues her entire life, along with the medications that go with them. She has no censor, says exactly what’s on her mind at ALL times, has even more rage and unpredictable behavior than Pat does, which of course scares him as much as it intrigues him. He is equally drawn and repelled at the same time, which always makes for a great love story, doesn’t it? If it was too easy, it wouldn’t be as fascinating to watch would it?

Many of the best writers draw from their own guts and real life. They not only know how to express their deepest feelings and desires, but they also know how to shine the light on their darkest thoughts and fears, as well as their own inadequacies and very human FLAWS. And Matthew Quick, who wrote “Silver Linings Playbook”, is no exception.

I am going to share a little excerpt from an interview with Mathew:

AND I QUOTE: “I always say that artists live on the fringe. I was a very good high school English teacher and I was a very good counselor of teenagers. But inside I was extremely depressed, partly because I wasn’t doing the one thing I wanted to do, which was to write. The other part was that there were a lot of weird quirky things going on inside of me that I didn’t let show. But when I started to write, I started to explore my psyche and all the things that make me Matthew Quick. And part of that was the fact that I do deal with depression. I do have anxiety issues. I can get overwhelmed with emotions. I had always been embarrassed by those traits but it’s also what fueled my writing. And the more that I came to understand that, most of my heroes who are novelists like Hemingway or Kurt Vonnegut, these are people who know the wild ups and downs. These are quirky people. These are people who are not mainstream. That was a revelation to me.”

He also lived for a spell with his parents and his father was obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and in “Silver Linings Playbook” he used all that as the foundation of his story and then added all these extra elements to the characters and the story line in a fictitious way to make the characters even more complex and compelling and ripe for conflict. In my writing workshops, we are unearthing the most fantastic, RAW and deeply human and sometimes dark stuff that comes from a writer’s soul. We are mining for personal Gold and I encourage you to do the same thing.

You need to answer some important questions when creating a character:

  1. Who are they? What is their back-story? Meaning, what is their history that has helped define their personality and shaped the world they live in?
  2. What quirks or inadequacies do they have that make them flawed and very human?
  3. What talents, expertise or confidence do they have that gives them courage to overcome obstacles?
  4. What is their relationship with the other characters and the challenges that they have to deal with in order to have a healthy or loving relationship with them?
  5. What is their big “want” or desire they have to achieve in the course of the story?
  6. What are the main obstacles in the way of achieving it? This is where you want your IMAGINATION TO FLY.
  7. What are some unique and UN-predictable ways in which they can accomplish their goal based on the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of that character??

This time we are focused on drama, next time in Part two of “Writing great characters” we’ll focus on comedy. But comedy needs complex characters and their conflicts as well.

If you haven’t yet, I also encourage you to watch my first two MTT videos about “How to Tap Into your own Personal Creative Genius” and “How to Cultivate Great Story Ideas”. They will also help you create great Characters for whatever you’re writing.

If you want to know more about my Writing Mastermind groups or private coaching, the info is down below… So until next time, wishing you all the best and have a beautiful day.

Minda Burr

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12 Responses to “Writing Great Characters for the Screen, Novels and Stage Plays – Part One”

  1. Bill Wade February 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    The seven questions are an excellent framework for creating a character and for some concomitant self analysis.

  2. Marilyn Kentz February 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    I love learning from Minda. She not only talks about creating characters that are “real” – something she can pontificate on because she, too, is very real.

  3. John Burke February 6, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Minda, your videos are all amazing! The way you present the material is just so though provoking and interesting — a great reminder that the biggest source of our wisdom and insight and inspiration lies WITHIN. Looking forward to more from you soon!

  4. clara york February 6, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Today my goal is to write character arcs for the main characters in my tv pilot. Watching this video was a so serendipitous! I wrote down your 7 tips and am well on my way to achieving my goal. Thank you Minda Burr, as always you teach me so much.

  5. savannah boucher February 6, 2013 at 9:23 pm #


    you are a God send in my life.

    without your support, i would not be able
    to bring my writing to class and read it out loud.
    i’ve decided that one’s talent is a gift and
    one’s craft is the work we do
    to care for that gift.

    writing has always been my dream, and being in your class
    is helping me make that a reality.

    your video helps me put things in order and think about
    what i must do in order to write.
    thank you for your love and support.

  6. Larry Boggs February 7, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    Your seven questions are right on the money and very helpful. I have been stuck with some character development in a screenplay I’m writing and I can see now that my characters aren’t complex enough. You also have me motivated to see Silver Linings Playbook. You have a nice manner about you and are very appealing to watch. Thank you.

  7. Dari Lallou Mackenzie February 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    I love how thoughtfully you have broken down the main character “Silver Linings Playbook”. The examples of what drove him and how that drive took him someplace other than where he intended highlight what makes for a compelling story. The seven questions a great template to use and I appreciate how you have the ability to just talk to us in these videos. Amazing teaching going on here.

  8. Candice J. Hincks February 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Great lesson. Minda is a warm, pleasant and informative teacher. I enjoyed her presentation.

    Thank you,
    Candice J. Hincks

  9. Lorraine Devon Wilke February 7, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    Great, foundational information, Minda! I love the way you characterize the characters as leading their own way, making their own decisions about where they’re going and what they’re doing. That’s exactly my process: conjure up the characters as fully as possible, create the framework of your story, then let them GO! Within certain structural boundaries, there is such a freedom in following the people you’ve created; one of the most exhilarating aspects of the process.

    Excellent advice for writers of every ilk…and I loved Silver Linings Playbook, so great choice of example. Keep doing what you do, great stuff!

  10. Jennifer February 9, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    Wow Minda, this was so helpful! Although we go over all of this in class, it was helpful to hear it in a very direct way that clearly outlines how effective character development can be.
    It’s so true that if we create a solid foundation the story can begin to breathe a life of it’s own!
    I love your approach to the entire process. It’s so wonderful to work with a teacher who genuinely cares about her students’ progress and nurtures us along the way!

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