Why do you like the characters you like?
When authors are struggling to develop a new novel or short story, one place to look for problems is a main character that isn’t fully developed and three dimensional. As a reader or movie goer, what draws you to a character? Do you identify with that person, wish you were as strong and/or as loving as that person, or perhaps as positive as that person?
If the main character in your own novel in progress isn’t catching fire yet, maybe there’s nothing down on paper yet about his or her philosophy, goals, behavior or day to day point of view that draws you to him/her. Maybe there’s nothing there yet to make the reader care what happens to your protagonist.
When I think of my favorite films, the ones I like best have characters that I am drawn to–even the evil characters are going to have a certain slick and calculating nastiness that makes me take notice. In the classic “Shane,” for example, Alan Ladd is a mysterious drifter with a past and a blazing six gun who puts his life on the line to help ranchers in their fight against a cattle baron. There’s a lot to respect in this and people are drawn to such a character just as they’re drawn to his mockingly evil nemesis Jack Palance, the gunfighter hired by the cattle baron.
I liked Jack Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter character in “The Apartment” because he reminded me of so many guys who are not only up against the powerful managers at the company where they work, but who always seem to have trouble “getting the girl” (in this case, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kublelik) when the world seems against them in every possible way. Baxter can choose to play the corporate game to try and get ahead, but he won’t respect himself as long as he’s doing it.
“The Apartment” is a Billy Wilder film with all the touches that drew viewers to his work, but a large part of the appeal here comes from the great cast and the memorable roles they played. A lot of people probably feel like C. C. Baxter as they confront the world.
You’ll notice that I’m picking older films here. Here’s why: since I saw they a long time ago, they have had a lasting impact. When I write, there’s a lot of Shane, C. C. Baxter, the strong Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in “High Noon,” and the derailed life of baseball player Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) in “The Natural” in the male characters in my stories. Occasionally, there’s a little derring-do from Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
I don’t model my characters after these actors or their roles. I am conscious, though, of the kinds of roles actors and actresses have played in movies I have been drawn to. How did they lure me into the story? How did the protagonist and antagonist lure me into my favorite books? There are many ways of developing strong and memorable characters in your work; thinking about what made your favorite fictional characters memorable to you is just one of them.
It also gives you an excuse to watch an old movie or re-read a favorite book and call it “research.”
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire, a comedy/satire featuring an old-style reporter with the reporting instincts of newsman Lou Grant from “Lou Grant” and “The Mary Tyler Show” with a lot of my own devil-may-case personality mixed in.