So I foolishly made the mistake of letting my friends talk me into going to see Magic Mike when it came out in the theaters.
It will be funny, they said.
But I wasn’t laughing.
And it probably wasn’t for the reasons you might be thinking.
Sure, the plot was stupid, the action tasteless, and the humor raunchy. I’m fairly certain all of that goes without saying (and it wasn’t surprising). But what struck me more than anything else was that the film actually had a chance to make a point, but it never bothered to come close to going where it should have.
And it was a problem that—given better writing—could have easily been solved and made the film more than tolerable. It might even have been good.
So what was the problem? Where did this pinnacle of cinematic excellence (please, I’m being sarcastic) go wrong? Sadly, it’s the same place many writers lose the audience.
The problem is that a number of novelists and screenwriters falsely believe that it is enough for their heroes be one dimensional. OK- maybe they don’t set out to do this, but they get so wrapped up in the plot that they fail to recognize the important role a multi-dimensional character plays in the success of the film or novel. Writers who struggle in this area often have characters who think their readers or audience will be satisfied by a hero who is in love with the girl, wants the job, or is just plain cute.
Not so fast.
Think about it- does a man only want to ‘get the girl’ in real life? Even the most smitten man has priorities and drives beyond—or at least in addition to—finding love.
Narratives that fall into such a problem fail to develop a rich story or believable characters. In the case of ‘Magic Mike’ for instance, the chance for a great narrative was squandered in favor of following a character the audience is supposed to believe has been forced to take his clothes off for a living so that he might –someday- be able to follow his ‘real’ dream of woodworking and making furniture. This might have worked if the audience saw him even once working in his wood shop. Realistically though, to make this narrative believable, the audience would need to see, feel, and believe that without the ability to create, Mike would wither away and die.
But novelists suffer this problem too. Many writers spend ample time leading the audience to believe the hero lives magically (pun intended, we’re looking at you Mike)- and solely- on the drive to get together with the heroine of the story, failing to recognize that even the most smitten man sometimes has to go to work, engage with family or friends, or even develop hobbies, skills, or education that in no way relate directly to the woman for whom he pines.
The answer to this flat-character dilemma isn’t so simple. In my experience the only real way around it is spending time on the front end of your writing project developing the hero’s backstory. He must be fully formed (with a past full of LIFE) in order for the audience to be sympathetic to his dilemma.
So, what is it that makes your hero real?
Some great resources for answering this question exist. See the end of this post for links to some of them. But for now, here are some questions that might help:
- What does the hero do in his spare time? Hobbies?
- What comes easily for the hero? Why?
- What does he hate to do? What is he allergic to? What is he bad at?
- Has the character been trained in any way (college, military, technical school)? What was this experience like for him? How does it influence him today?
- What are his vices? Favorite things? (think Oprah- make a list!)
- What is his family life like? With whom in his family does he interact on a regular basis?
- Friends? What do they do together for fun?
- Habits? (dining out, church/ ministry, clubs, etc.)
- What goals does he have? How does he plan to achieve these goals?
- How does the love interest support/ conflict with these goals?
- What do the hero and heroine have in common?
- What does the hero not want to do (but keeps doing anyway)? What is in the hero’s past that he wishes he could escape?
I could go on for days with questions such as these. In essence, if you look around at your friends, family, and colleagues, what makes them who they are? What makes them do what they do on a daily basis? While I don’t recommend pulling too much actual information from these sources, allow them to inspire you to see parallels within your characters’ lives so one dimension quickly becomes a fully-formed individual.
Once you’ve worked your way through some or all of the above questions, you will need to weave them organically into the story—let the answers influence your character and give him personality—and more to talk or pursue beyond his love interest, career, or other story goal.
Here’s a short list of some resources that might be helpful in your backstory creation. (Note: don’t be afraid to apply any or all of this information to side characters, love interests, and villains as well).
What are some ways you make your characters more believable? How do you give characters goals and depth? Feel free to comment below. And as always, happy writing!