Lessons in Storytelling from TV and Film: Characters #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Lessons TV Film Character Creation

Welcome to the second part of my new series for 2018, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other posts in the hop click the image:

ATB

Last time I wrote about first episodes of TV shows and what we can learn from them to create awesome first chapters. It was one of the most fun posts I’ve ever written, and not just because I got to binge watch shows on Netflix!

In this post I’ll talk about characters and what makes them great.

How much I love a story depends on the characters. If I love them, I usually love the story. If I don’t, no matter how good the world building, plot or setting is, I’ll move on.

So what makes a character great? Let’s look at a few examples!

My victims (shows & films):

Although I love a lot of the shows mentioned in last months post, some of the characters weren’t the strongest or became weaker as the shows went on. I’ve chosen some different examples this time around, alongside a couple of returning favourites!

The shows/films I chose:

atv tv characters

Once Upon a Time, How to Train Your Dragon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Punisher, How I Met Your Mother, Mulan, Legally Blonde & Merlin.

There will be spoilers for these shows/films!

So which characters am I talking about, and what can we learn from them?

Once Upon a Time: Give villains a reason to be bad.

The Evil Queen/Regina:

I’m up and down about this show, but one thing it does well is some of its characters. Near the beginning we find out that, after being saved from the sleeping curse, Snow White and her kingdom were cursed by the Evil Queen and sent to live in the real world.

Later it’s revealed the Evil Queen, Regina, had good reason for hating Snow White: Snow failed to keep a secret, which led to Regina’s boyfriend being murdered. I love villains with reasons for their actions. It gives them depth and avoids baddies who are bad for the sake of it.

People usually have reasons for their actions and the way they are. There’s a story behind every character, and things aren’t always clear-cut. Make sure your characters have depth, and give your villains, and your heroes, reasons to act the way they do!

How to Train your Dragon: Give your characters strengths.

Hiccup:

One of my favourite movies of all time is How to Train Your Dragon. I love Toothless, and I’ve seen the movie a dozen times. The Netflix series is great too. Anyway, lest I digress into a tangent of Toothless pictures, lets focus on characters.

toothless and hiccup.png
Image: Toothless & Hiccup. Toothless is adorable.

Hiccup is shunned by his village for being the most un-viking like viking who ever existed. He doesn’t have physical strength like the other villagers, but he’s really smart. He designs a device to take down a dragon without needing strength, but destroys half the village in the process.

His real strength of character is shown when he meets Toothless, the dragon he shot down. Unable to kill him, when every other Viking would, Hiccup looks after and befriends a dragon when he’s been taught to fear them his entire life. He uses his skills to design a tail to replace the dragons damaged one, makes a saddle, and saves his village with his new friend.

Give your characters strengths which help them on their journey. Those strengths don’t have to be physical, but they should be used to help your character progress or survive. Just be wary of creating characters with too many strengths and no weaknesses. No one is perfect! 

Raiders of the Lost Ark: Characters should have a purpose.

Indiana Jones:

I owe this example to another show, The Big Bang Theory. Indiana Jones had no purpose in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Without him the Nazis still would have found the Ark, opened it, and died. The main character wasn’t essential to the movie. There are articles summarising the theory and it’s been debated a lot since that episode of The Big Bang Theory aired.

Make sure your main character isn’t pulled along by the plot. Let their actions and choices affect the outcome of the story, or readers may wonder what the point of them is!

Even minor characters should have a purpose, be it to motivate your main character or move the plot forward. Lincoln Burrows impending execution in Prison Break motivates brother Michael to get arrested and try to break him out of prison.

Give your named characters a purpose, as well as clear goals and struggles of their own. It will create a well-defined cast of interesting people your reader can get behind.

The Punisher: Write complex characters.

Frank Castle:

Frank is an ex-marine, hunting and killing those involved in the murder of his family. He’s an excellent shot, but he’s not afraid to fight up close either. Some of his kills are brutal.

But with new friend David’s kids he’s softer, and a good role model. With David’s wife he’s respectful and helpful. He makes it clear to reporter Karen that he only kills those who deserve it. He saves Agent Madani when leaving her for dead would’ve been less complicated. He’s a vigilante with violent methods, but he’s more than that. There’s a goodness to him.

frank and karen
I can’t wait for season 2. (Mostly to see if Frank and Karen’s relationship develops because they’re perfect!)

People are multi-faceted. They act differently around co-workers, friends they know well, and people they dislike. Write complex characters and keep in mind how they’d act around different groups of people. Even bad guys have people they’re close to and won’t act evil all the time!

Once Upon a Time: Write flawed characters.

Rumplestiltskin:

Back to Once Upon a Time for this one. Rumplestiltskin’s main flaw is his desire to hold onto his power. He chooses this power over his own son, and continues to make choices which hurt others to hold onto it. Despite falling in love and trying to change he continually falls back on old habits. Will he ever truly change? I’m not sure: I’m only up to season 4!

Write characters who are flawed. No one is perfect, and our characters should reflect that. Sometimes they make bad choices, questionable choices, or mistakes. Use these to bring them to life and help readers relate to them.

How I Met Your Mother: Create iconic characters.

Barney Stinson:

When Barney speaks, it’s obvious who’s talking. His cries of ‘Suit Up,’ and ‘Legendary,’ are distinctive. His speech and mannerisms bring his character to life. Make your characters unique. Give them individual quirks and traits that make them recognisable to your readers.

Mulan: Develop your characters through the struggles they face.

Mulan:

Mulan was my favourite Disney princess. I related to her desire to figure out who she was and her struggles to fit in no matter how hard she tried. As she makes choices, to disguise herself as a boy and take her father’s place in the army, her character develops.

mulan

Through hard work and determination she becomes a kick-ass warrior who uses her skills to save the emperor. Write characters that develop as your story progresses. Mulan learns to fight and discovers who she is. Your characters could learn magic, or to stand up for what’s right.

Just don’t mention the Mulan live action remake, which will replace Li Shang and take away Mulan’s hard work by giving her special powers -_-” Disney, you suck.

Legally Blonde: Write characters readers can relate to.

Elle Woods:

I’ll never be a sorority girl. On the surface there’s nothing about Elle I can relate to, but even though I’m her polar opposite I found myself able to relate to her and cheering for her.

Maybe it was her desire to become something more, which started as a way to be near her ex-boyfriend but evolved into proving she could become a lawyer. Maybe it was her positive attitude no matter what happened to her, or her desire to help others.

Give your characters characteristics readers can relate to, be it strength, humanity, strong family bonds, kindness, magic or humility, so they’re cheering for them throughout your stories.

Merlin: Make your character development believable.

Morgana:

I liked this show a lot, but the female characters needed better development.

Morgana’s descent into darkness was badly handled. In episode ten of season one Morgana was honourable, a good friend who snuck away from the castle to help Merlin protect his village. Her later descent into darkness and lack of hesitation to betray her friends was sudden and out of character. Yes she was away from the castle for a year, and I accept things can change in time, but because the change wasn’t shown on-screen it was abrupt and unbelievable.

morgana.png

Make your character development believable. Readers want to see consistent characters whose actions make sense. If you want one of your good characters to become evil show it happening, and show us why, especially if it involves betraying their good friends.

So what have we learned about writing characters?

  • Give your characters reasons for their actions, especially villains.
  • Characters should have strengths, which they use in our stories.
  • All characters should have a purpose.
  • Write complex characters.
  • Make your characters flawed. No one is perfect.
  • Give your characters unique traits and mannerisms.
  • Develop your characters through the struggles they face.
  • Write characters readers can relate to.
  • Make sure your character development is believable.

Let me know if I’ve missed any points in the comments below. There are so many things that make up excellent characters I’m bound to have missed something!

The more you get to know your characters, the easier they are to write about. One thing I’ve noticed from writing fanfiction is it’s easier to write about a character once you’ve gotten to know all their quirks. Writing fanfiction after one or two episodes is near impossible.

Get to know your characters. Write lots of scenes with them, even if they don’t relate to the plot. It’ll help you get to know them and write them more consistently.

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Thanks for reading!

In future posts I’ll cover what we can learn from TV about believable dialogue, relationships, plot, pacing, themes and how setting influences our writing.

What do you think? Who’s your favourite character from a TV series, anime, book or film? Which characters do you hate, or love to hate? Let me know in the comments!

36 comments

  1. These are all really good points, but I think the one I would put at the top of my list would be “develop characters through their struggles”. Characters and conflicts represent two halves of a dance that should be reciprocal, with both changing the other, and being changed by the other. Granted, I’ve seen a few stories that had an unchanging character, and I liked it, but I think there was also a way in which the events of the story only served to reinforce the character’s nature, so it made sense. A character who seems to exist independent of their narrative is not something I would care for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post today Louise. I heard once from a literary agent author’s sometimes fail to give the vilain a purpose and spend as much time on them as the MC. I also hadn’t thought about Indiana Jones! Thank you. Happy Hop Day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A character’s history defines him. Not that we, as writers, have to info dump every event that shaped him, but we have to make him believable, and therefore relatable, by giving him one or more events that changed his way of thinking. Whether it’s an off-hand remark they take the wrong way or cruelty and abuse, the character has to have a reason he makes decisions in your story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly 🙂 I’ve got a lot of backstory scenes and snippets from my characters past that won’t make it into the novel as more than a reference, but I’ve still written them because it helps me flesh them out in my mind and cement the reasons behind their actions!

      Like

  4. Excellent points! I love that you added How to Train Your Dragon — Hiccup is such an intriguing character.

    I like watching characters develop on Criminal Minds. They follow pretty much all of your tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember that episode of Big Bang Theory, and I don’t think I’ll ever watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again.

    Excellent tips – thanks for all the Netflix hours you put into this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. All great points. While I wasn’t familiar will all the character examples, I thought your use of them was well done and spot on. I found it interesting that Big Bang Theory has become a conduit to classic movies and TV programs. Unfortunately, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in ’81 when it was released, and I took my kids. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂 It’s amazing what makes its way into the Big Bang Theory!
      I remember cowering behind the couch when I was younger at the end of Raiders, but it wasn’t as bad as Temple of Doom: That one was terrifying!

      Like

  7. This is excellent, Louise. Thanks so much for all these insights and tips. I’ve shared the post online. I’ll be sure we’re connected online and that I follow your blog. All best to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post on character development. I agree with you that liking a character makes me like the show/movie/book more. I’m not familiar with several of your examples but I’m going to look for How to Train Your Dragon.
    I’m also currently planning a major revision and I’ve discovered my antagonists don’t have enough of their own story so your writing about villains is helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂
      I hope you like How to Train Your Dragon, I think it’s awesome!
      Villains can be tricky to write. The best advice I’ve read is to try and treat them like the main character to get a better idea of their goals and story. Good luck 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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