Watch: 2 Crucial Things 'American Beauty' Can Teach You About Writing Characters
Creating a dynamic, multidimensional character is one of the most difficult challenges screenwriters face.
Humans love stories—and those of us that crave character-driven tales (as opposed to plot-driven ones) delight in the chance to get to know the people that these stories are about. Icons like Tyler Durden, The Dude, The Bride, and Marge Gunderson captivate audiences with their own unique approach to life, as well as their struggle to overcome their obstacles.
But how are these characters crafted? What elements are needed in order to create one that your audience won't ever forget? Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay highlights the elements that screenwriter Alan Ball used in Sam Mendes' glorious character study American Beauty in the video below:
A lot goes into creating a character, but Tucker explores a couple of facets that often go unnoticed (and unlearned). I will say this before going further—there are no rules to screenwriting or creating characters. These are just suggestions for techniques you can use to make your characters more multidimensional and functional to your story.
Your characters are not separate individuals
Author John Truby wrote in his book The Anatomy of Story that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is creating characters that are independent of each other. In his video, Tucker points out that characters should all be variants of the story's theme. He explains how Ball did this in American Beauty, by putting each character at different points of their journey to self-discovery. Doing this creates a network of wants and needs that requires the protagonist to interact with the other characters in order to identify, understand, and possibly fulfill them. This motivated character interaction helps drive the story forward. (If you want to learn more about identifying your story's theme, check this out.)
Use subtext to reveal characters
There's nothing worse than expositional scenes in which a character clearly and precisely expresses their wants and needs. Where's the subtext? You need subtext to allow the audience to become participants in the story, rather than mere consumers of it, because although audiences need information to make sense of the story, they want to make their own inferences to stay engaged in the story.
For example, it's not very interesting to watch a scene in which a husband and wife itemize all of their marital problems until one of them says, "Hey, I want to separate because you care more about your work than you do me." Wouldn't it be much more engaging to watch their challenges unfold in a scene, rather than hearing them talk about it with all the exposition? It'd probably be better if neither of them even talked to each other! That would speak volumes!
I highly suggest studying your favorite screenplays and searching for the elements that Tucker mentions in the video. Look for the theme of the film and try to map out how each character fits into it. Then try to highlight all of the dialog scenes that use subtext—or even try to add some to the ones that don't.