If Walls Could Talk: Crafting Characters your Audience will Stick With

M.H. Norris

I once was reading a book about screenwriting and throughout the book, they provided different examples of shows. Their reader should go and see the actual examples.

One show was Commander In Chief. It ran for one season, the year after The West Wing went off air. It’s currently on Hulu.

Tentatively, I would recommend you take a look. Whether you are interested in screenwriting or just writing in general, there’s lessons to be learned from this show.

Initially, my assumption was that the show went off air because it is nowhere near as well-done as The West Wing. In the shadow of that show, it folded. I’m not entirely sold that that didn’t play a factor, but it’s not the only reason the show had such a short run.

Commander in Chief is fascinating to me. The writing is actually, except for one thing, sold. It’s witty,  they did their research.

But the one thing is what killed them.

After watching twenty-two episodes, I discovered that, as the finale faded to black, that there wasn’t a single character that I cared about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People come to your story for the premise, but they’re going to stay (and come back again and again) for your characters.

1) Make Sure They’re Well-Rounded

There’s nothing worse than a story full of flat characters. You’re going to have them–background characters who really are just there to move a plot forward (the officer who greets your investigator as they walk up to a crime scene, a witness who saw something relatively unimportant, things like this).

These characters have no depth, but we also barely see them. If they even receive a name, you forget it ten pages later and it doesn’t matter.

But your main characters, even the ones on the side, need to be fleshed out, well-rounded. Make the characters seem real, thus allowing the stakes of your story to seem that much more real.

2) Establish Reasons for What they Do

For those of you wanting to argue suspension of belief, it only goes but so far. You have to be careful with that. It is not something to depend on.

Let’s use Psych as an example here.

Shawn Spencer is extremely intelligent and extremely observant. But, if you aren’t looking for his tells, you won’t see it underneath the joking exterior, except for rare moments he lets it out.

His near-perfect photographic memory? His father helped him develop it since he was a small child, same with his impressive deductive ability.

The way he remembers pretty much everything he hears? He inherited his Mother’s tonal memory.

All theses extraordinary abilities he displays are justified throughout the series. And they aren’t in your face about it either. He hides them behind humor and childish activities and all of these make up his character.

3) Make Your Readers Care

When I finished watching Commander in Chief, I realized something. I didn’t care about any of the characters. I wasn’t emotionally invested. I was okay with the show being over.

The trick with writing is to hook your readers. One way to do that is with solid characters. These are the people who are bringing the story in your head to life in the pages (or e-readers) in your reader’s hands.

I have asked myself, why should someone care?

As writers, we care because the story is our baby. It’s something we’ve spent hours upon hours on. But sometimes that causes our judgment to be clouded and we don’t see mistakes in our own writing or we don’t see that this character needs improvement.

It even applies to characters. Why should people care about your character, their hopes, their dreams, their fears?

Answer that and you are well on your way.

People may come for your premise, but chances are they’ll stay for your characters.