So I spent a lot of Thanksgiving week binge-watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix as Marvel intended. One thing I loved about the superhero neo-noir was that no character seemed wasted. Every character, from the cynical hard-drinking Jones to her arch-nemesis, the all-powerful Killgrave, seemed to be more than just a plot point. All of them existed as well-rounded characters capable of surprising the audience beyond the demands of the plot.
Too often, characters fall into Checklist Trap. You need a protagonist, an antagonist, perhaps a sidekick or a love interest, maybe a henchman or two, all depending on the story you are trying to tell. It can be easy for a character to never rise above or veer from the roles you have set for them if you aren’t careful.
I recently read an article in which Aaron Sorkin said that characters aren’t people . . . at least not exactly. Real people don’t talk in snappy dialogue (especially outside of a Sorkin movie). Their lives usually don’t conform to a story arc the way a character does in a novel or TV show. But this doesn’t mean they have to be stuck in the convenient Protagonist or Antagonist box in either.
It’s already a good idea to give your characters distinguished voices to tell them apart. Dialogue can feel stilted if everyone gets along, has the same personality and talks the same way. But for your characters to truly live, it has to go beyond that. They need more than just voices – they also need lives – including relationships, likes, dislikes and hobbies – especially ones outside of the purview of the plot.
The opposite extreme is having characters hijack your plot altogether – something many a NaNo writer has fallen victim to. Once again, writers have to walk a tightrope between listening to their characters and sticking to the plan – even if the plan is to write by the seat of your pants. But either way, characters have to exist as more than a means to an end – they can’t just be a bunch of action figures you set upon one another. As both Jessica Jones and its predecessor Daredevil prove, a cast of compelling characters can be powerhouses on any line-up of any project.