How to write an authentic and compelling character: Part 1

Hello, aspiring filmmakers and changemakers! Have you been following along with our filmmaking blog series? We’ve recently covered both: things to consider when creating a film about someone else’s mental health experience, and things to consider when creating a film about your own. Today we’re exploring part one of tips for writing an authentic and compelling character, with input from the real experts: our previous OLIVE Film Winners.

Develop empathy

Viewers have to care about your main character and this can often be garnered through empathy. Perhaps it’s because something bad has happened to cause undeserved pain, the character is humiliated, the character experiences unfair loss or rejection, etc. Or perhaps they’re wishing for something universally understood, like love and acceptance, that we can all connect with on some level.

“When it comes to writing characters I think we automatically want to think of our protagonist as the “good guy” but really all people are good and bad..and flawed and complicated. So I try to show many different sides to my characters even in a short film. I think showing the good, the bad and the ugly is what makes a character compelling.” – Elizabeth Ayiku, filmmaker, ‘Little Elizabeth’.

In the film ‘The Gift’ the viewer can immediately feel a sense of empathy with the protagonist – his letter is addressed to ‘anyone who cares’. This pulls at our desire as humans to have a community and people we can lean on, and the character’s sense of isolation and loneliness is something that those of us who have been in the darkest depths can relate to.

The Gift

Make characters relatable and likeable

Similar to above, familiarity can go a long way in creating connections to a character. This can mean they’re doing something everybody does and finds familiarity in, like eating breakfast or celebrating a birthday. And to go deeper, perhaps the character is facing an inner struggle. Here’s a tidbit from a blog on “The audience needs to identify with someone early on, and if your characters are generally unlikeable (even if you may think they’re interesting), it simply won’t be enough to sustain a script…writing strong dialogue that shows how witty or charming the character may be can go a long way.”

Says Randy Kelly, filmmaker behind ‘Autobiography of a Body’: “I think fictional characters should be invested with the personality traits of real people to make them compelling. Endearing and annoying traits, character strengths and flaws can be exaggerated and/or blended from various people you know create complex yet authentic characters.”  We love this tip. At the end of the day we are all complex humans!

One of our short films that does this effectively is ‘Limitless’ on the topic of social anxiety (below). The film brings viewers into Zoe’s internal dialogue around what she should wear to a party early on, following her thinking around whether or not she should go, and the subsequent anxiety associated with this.Not only that, but Zoe’s reluctance to let her friend down or go back on a promise creates an authentic connection. This particular setting and internal conflict is something many of us have likely faced and as such, can create a connection to the character almost immediately.

Limitless by Rory McLeod

Use storytelling genuinely

Storytelling is an art in itself, and a necessary one to master when connecting with the viewers of your film. We see storytelling everywhere as a way of sharing views, creating connections and moving people to action. When crafting a story for your film it’s imperative to think about what emotion you want to communicate to your viewers, and then craft your story to support the emotion. At the same time, as Elizabeth Ayiku points out: “I think the best way to be genuine is to simply tell your story, not the story you think people want to hear. Just get it all out of your head and down on paper. You’ll be surprised what comes out.” Elizabeth points out the importance of honoring your own story if you’re creating a film about a personal experience. On the flip side, Vicki Kisner, filmmaker behind ‘Mia’s Story’ shares approaching storytelling while creating a character from scratch:

“Since Mia’s Story is a very intimate film focusing on one character and her state of mind we (the film team) decided that it was important to align ourselves very closely with her point of view. I think this is vital when trying to get into the head of a main character, especially one who is suffering from mental health problems as it’s about their perception and how they view the world and the things going on around them.” – Vicki Kisner

Mia’s Story.

Another important thing to consider when writing a film about storytelling specifically about someone else’s experience is pointed out here by Damien D. Smith: “Always protect your subject because it’s a thin line when you spotlight an aspect of society that the majority of the population don’t take the time to know and understand.” Damien is the filmmaker behind ‘About That…’, a unique film that shines a light on the experience of someone’s internal reality that is in fact different than what is really going on. It takes a look into mental illness and acceptance in society, and as such can be a delicate topic, as Damien notes.

Stay tuned for next week as we explore more tips for creating an authentic and compelling character? Have feedback or tips to add? Share with us below or connect with us on social media!


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