“There are three basic rules for creating audience-worthy movie characters. First, no stereotypes. Second: Render everybody, even the foulest, most evil villain somehow sympathetic. Third: Instead of having them lie there on a slab, static and stale, require your characters to grow and develop throughout the tale.”
This advice from Walter’s helpful handbook, Screenwriting, seems to apply equally well to short stories, novels, and plays. I’m not sure about rule two, though: I can think of a few villains: Valdemort from Harry Potter and Moriarity in Sherlock Holmes, who are totally unsympathetic. I guess that just proves that other rule we all know about: you know, the one that says all rules are meant to be broken.
In any case, it’s been fascinating to read about a Danish crime thriller series called, The Killing that’s winning rave reviews. People are passionate about it precisely because it’s not action-driven, but slow moving and because it goes for emotional depth rather than flash. As one critic, Robin Jarossi, put it: “The power of the series is the brilliantly drawn, complex characters, who can make bad choices or lie but never lost our empathy.”
Wow! Complex characters — this seems like a rarity on TV and quite a feat to pull off. And yet the very response of audiences to this approach shows just powerful it can be. When I think of books and stories I really love and return to, it’s the characters who draw me in. As long as I care about what happens to them, I’ll go along for a plot’s twists and turns. But if the characters don’t grab me, then even the most inventive story won’t hold me. “The best fiction always starts with characters” — that’s a note I jotted down from a novel-writing workshop. I totally agree with this — how about you?