Flawed Characters We Love
This marks my second workweek without an episode of Mad Men to discuss with co-workers. All of my fellow fans know what I’m going through. The void has driven me to reflect on what it was that made me adore that series so much. I promise there will be no major spoilers here, and definitely no finale spoilers, but for those of you still working your way through the rest of the series take this warning as one-part spoiler alert, and one-part public shaming.
My love for this series doesn’t come from its historical setting or the rare-but-hilarious office hijinks, particularly those involving a lawn mower. It comes from the characters.
I love Mad Men dearly, but I have hated each and every character at least once during its 8-year run. I hated Don every time he messed up with his family. I hated Joan when she finally turned her back on Don. I hated Betty every time she went overboard and Sally every time she was a brat. I hated Peggy’s naivety and her stupid haircut. I hated Pete. (Does anyone need a reason to hate Pete?) But despite all their flaws, I wanted nothing but happiness or success for each and every one of them.
What can Mad Men teach us about creating our own characters? Above all else, it can teach us that writers don’t have to create flawless characters to make perfect characters. Characters with flaws are interesting! I am confident in saying that 100% of movie and TV watchers everywhere are interested in interesting characters.
Let me start with something that, as a script reader, really drives me crazy about character descriptions (so that you can avoid this at all costs). If you’re giving a character description that describes Chris Hemsworth, then Chris Hemsworth better be the only person on the entire planet who can get out of the situation you’re about to craft. This is what I’m talking about:
MARTY (30), huge bulging muscles, long blonde hair, tan and glowing.
Boring. I know that’s probably the description of the person who will be casted. But what does that kind of a description say about your character? His huge bulging muscles better save his life and his long blonde hair better allow him to be spotted in a crowd later on, otherwise, those descriptions are not necessary. There is one word that can be used to describe Marty in this situation: “Handsome.” Move on. Get away from the fluffy, envious descriptions and get to the story.
When I see descriptions that are filled with this fluffy perfection, I instantly see a character that is idolized by the writer. If the writer has described a person with a perfect appearance, what other perfect elements are going to perfectly align to make him even more perfect? Your tall, dark, and handsome darling is unrelatable from the start. Unless your story is one about a person struggling with self-image, there is no situation where a flawless appearance, or any overly descriptive appearance at all, would hold enough stake in your story to be the very first thing I read.
Beyond your character’s description, their voice is just as important. If your character has an established voice, I won’t have to read which character is saying which line. I’ll just know. It makes reading flow more smoothly, and it will make the dialogue feel smoother once it’s on a screen. When characters have their own distinct voice, there will be no last minute scrambling to try and remember, “Who was that character again?” No one will ask those questions, because like real people, your characters will be distinct.
And like real, distinct people, your characters should have goals. And (sometimes) like real people, their goals should be something that can be achieved based on a characteristic they have. If you write a character that wants nothing more than to be able to ride downhill on a unicycle, you better write a character that is agile, or if nothing else, determined despite lack of ability. Throw in obstacles that will not simply stand in the way of his goals but will also help him to grow as a character.
Think of the goals presented in Mad Men. Peggy is a great example. Above all else, Peggy wants to be a Creative Director; she has her eyes on that goal almost from the very start. But Peggy is naïve, that’s her major flaw that keeps her story interesting, and keeps her goal just out of reach (among other things). Inequality is a big obstacle for her. So is continuing to work in Don’s shadow. But Peggy is also very determined, and that keeps her moving toward her goals despite the obstacles presented. I promised no spoilers, so I will end the analysis there, but think about your favorite characters and outline them in the same way. All good characters will easily align to the same formula.
I would like to leave you with one last suggestion. It was the best character note I ever received when I started writing: “Movie characters change. TV characters do not.” It’s that simple. If your TV character is changing in the third episode, you better be writing a mini-series, because once a TV character changes, the show is over. And if after two hours, your movie character still hasn’t changed; there is this huge feeling of disappointment in the air.
Changing or not changing can be the simplest, and yet most hidden, reason why a story doesn’t work. That’s why flaws can be so fun. You can bring your character to events in their lives that will allow them to overcome the flaws that you’ve crafted. At that point, the flaws can either disappear, or they can be accepted. The choice is completely up to you, but you won’t get to have fun with flaws if they’re not there to begin with.
Professional Script Reader
Kelly Boruff reads scripts for management and production company Benderspink. She aspires to one day be an extraordinary TV producer, but for now she is just an extraordinary TV viewer. (Like, real TV. You’re welcome, Nielsen.) Like most people just starting out in Hollywood, she has mastered the art of avoiding conversations about career experience and will not indulge your curiosity by listing out her (recently) growing resume. Follow Kelly on Twitter at @KellyBlick.