We’ve all experienced that painful moment; when the cursor lingers above a blank Word document, winking at you like a leering letch; “Hey, baby. Lay all that pretty prose on me. You know you want to.” Oh, God, I do. I do. If only the words would come! Avoid this pitfall by endowing your characters with these five attributes.
1. An interesting physical description. A character’s physical description can tell us a lot about him or her. A scar, for example, reveals a violent or traumatic past, which implies something about both his internal and external conflicts. As a rule of thumb, physical description should consist of three concrete characteristics (eye and hair color, size, facial structure, etc.) and at least one descriptor of the character’s presence; how the reader might feel in the same room with him or her. The more quirks and oddities you sculpt for your character, the more material to draw from in a moment of blank-dom.
Don’t know what to do with this scene? Have your protagonist finally reveal on the eve of his wedding, he doesn’t actually need the eye patch, it was just an excuse to strike up a conversation with a beautiful optometrist (his now fiancé). Oh, dear. Now she can’t trust him. He hasn’t nobly overcome a disability; from the moment they met, he was lying to her! But it’s a destination wedding, 150 guests have already bought their tickets, her mother’s dying wish was to see her daughter married (and their pulling the plug tomorrow), and she just found out she’s pregnant. What to do?
2. A strength and a weakness. A character’s greatest strength should also be his greatest weakness. These traits are his crutch to taking a leap of faith, and the traits he will have to surrender. What traits does the character rely on to get him through tough times? What traits does the character believe are his salvation?
In the newest Star Trek movie, Spock’s logic is his strongest trait, but it also leaves him isolated and unable to acknowledge meaningful relationships with loved ones. When Kirk dies in order to save the ship, Spock abandons logic and is overwhelmed with emotion, which motivates him to hunt down and defeat Kirk’s killer, while accepting the help of his friends.
3. A worst fear. A character’s fear prevents her from taking a leap of faith, and overcoming their weakness disguised as a strength. How does the character feel he might become unlovable? What is her deepest anxiety or worry? A character must confront his or her fear at every turning point in the story.
In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will’s primal need is to be loved. His fear is that he doesn’t deserve it. He must over come three major hurdles in order to accept love into his life. First, though he is a genius, he must accept he doesn’t know everything, and confront the fear of the unknown, about himself (which is when he agrees to meet with Robin William’s character for therapy). Second, he must confront his fear of being unworthy, or not good enough (when he rejects Skylar’s request for him to move to California with her, and says he doesn’t love her—an obvious lie). Third, he must embrace his own ability to love, and take a chance on moving to California with no guarantees (when he leaves without saying goodbye, and follows Skylar to California).
4. Six things that need fixing. This, I borrowed from Blake Snyder’s, SAVE THE CAT. “Six things that need fixing” is an arbitrary number that represents the character’s tics and flaws that will become “running gags” or “call-backs” through out your story, and function like a progress report.
In the movie Big, we see Tom hanks as a child, trying to meet the size requirement for an amusement park ride, date a pretty girl, and struggle for privacy. After he magically turns big, each of those funny moments is revisited, and he is able to obtain all those things.
5. A strong voice. A character’s voice reveals the character’s unique way of experiencing the world, his point of view (POV). It encompasses what he thinks, does, and says about his surroundings. Dialogue is essential to revealing a character’s voice. Especially when it is in direct opposition to what we know is the character’s internal state (because that creates conflict), and/or when it is used in tandem with the character’s actions to create a subtext (like sexual tension).
Every line of dialogue should reveal something about your character; dialogue should not repeat an internal thought, and vice versa. Dialogue should be recognizable without beats or tags (i.e. “…said Jane”). Dialogue is not conversational; it’s that great comeback you thought up after the argument is over. Dialogue should also be considered in terms of gender. For example, a man would be more likely to say, “That’s a nice sunset.” And a woman would be more likely to respond with, “Oh, my gosh. Would you look at that? So pretty! And all the colors with those nice purples and pinks. Can I just tell ya, it reminds me of that vacation we took to Hawaii all those years ago.” If you’re stuck, make your character say something completely inappropriate or off kilter, and suddenly you’re back in business.
For a boring example, “Who is that tall man?” Now let’s spice it up a bit, “Holy Hell, who invited the skyscraper to the party? I hope he doesn’t have a twin. Otherwise, we might end up a target for terrorists.” The second is a funny, sarcastic voice, which relays information about our character and how she sees the world. Also, not only do we know the man she’s looking at is extremely tall, but he also makes her feel uneasy.
So there you have it, five attributes to keep your characters busy and your story moving. Make them as strong as you can from the beginning, and you’ll always have searing retort for those creeper-cursor catcalls. No blank document will ever get the best of you again!