This may seem like an obvious point, and yet, it so regularly gets ignored: if you don’t have compelling characters, you will not have a compelling story. It’s a complaint I have for many movie and TV franchises these days as many stories rely on character types and tropes instead of leaning upon interesting characters to drive the stories.
Often, we viewers watch stories where a main character has a gun pointed at his head, and we are supposed to have an emotional reaction to this fact, but the sad fact is, if we haven’t been given reason to care about a character as a unique and complicated individual, we will not have the emotional reaction the writers hope to achieve. Pretty people in expensive clothes do not a compelling character make. (I’m looking at you, CBS!) Three-legged blind puppies with terminal cancer (victim characters) are not interesting except that they emotionally manipulate the audience, Nick Sparks! No, a good character is more complicated than that, and a compelling character will drive a story. In a way, when a writer has found an interesting character, the story will essentially write itself because the writer need only pen what that character will want, think, and do.
So, what makes an interesting character? Internal conflict. Yes, every story needs conflict (shut up, postmodernists), but that external conflict is not terribly interesting unless the main character simultaneously feels internal conflict. For example, let’s say Rambo has to get through 100 guards to get to some damsel in distress. By story standards, this is a fine conflict, but it’s not that interesting, is it? Why? Because we already know that Rambo is going to win, don’t we? But even if we didn’t, that conflict isn’t that interesting. What’s necessary to make that particular example interesting is if something inside of Rambo is conflicted. For example, perhaps he wants to save the damsel, yet there is a man who was once his best friend in the guard, and Rambo has to eliminate his chum to get to the girl. Or, perhaps, Rambo is tired of killing, and he realizes that most of these men that are protecting the compound where this damsel is being held are simple soldiers who did not sign up for this. To kill them is to kill 100 potential family men, and he has to wonder to himself if this one woman’s life is worth that sort of carnage.
Is Rambo the most interesting character of all time? … perhaps. But probably not. No, we also need information about his life, his character, that makes him unique. The best stories, and therefore, the best movies, have uniquely invented characters that stand out in cinema history. They all have quirks, loves, turns of phrase, fears that set them apart. Here are some famous examples: Jules from Pulp Fiction, Annie Wilkes from Misery, Daniel Plainview from There Will be Blood, and, of course, my favorite character in film history, Rick from Casablanca.
So, next time you sit down to write the next great American movie or TV series, be sure to start with characters because the first question the audience is going to ask is not going to be how many explosions or gratuitous nude scenes are in this movie (unless you’re a thirteen-year old boy). They will ask, who am I following in this story, and why should I care?