Great characters are the foundation of memorable stories. In a previous post, I discussed how to establish reader empathy with your protagonist. But even if you succeed at this, you’ve still got plenty of work to do. After all, what’d be the point of making your audience connect with trite, bland, or lackluster characters?
Every creative endeavor suffers from the same innate paradox: humans crave novelty, but we also desire the familiar. Go too far in one direction, and you’ll have a story that’s either too bizarre for most palates or too boring to make an impression.
So how do you walk this razor-sharp edge when crafting your characters? Simple. You employ common archetypes and stock characters to establish a sense of the familiar, then exploit these tropes by violating reader expectations to create something wholly unique.
The titular character of HBO’s Barry is the perfect example of a character that challenges audience expectations. Barry is an expert assassin, a hired hit-man who contract kills for mob bosses. Unless you’ve seen the show, your mind has already formed a rough sketch of this character– his values, personality, motivations and goals; maybe even his physical appearance. On some level– conscious or subconscious– you have expectations of what a hit- man will do or say as a main character.
Did your mind immediately conjure a remorseless psychopath like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men? Or someone as vengeful and bloodthirsty as the bride from Kill Bill? Whatever impression you formed, it was likely someone with a brutal past and tough demeanor. Someone like this:
You expect such a character to be motivated by violence or vengeance. But when first introduced, Barry is far removed from that picture of virile brutality. He’s lonely, depressed, and disaffected with his life as a hit man. His partner, Fuches, remarks of his grubby, disheveled apartment (and if you’re reading the subtext, Barry’s entire life): “This shit heap looks like the old Barry, before he had a purpose.”
This early scene is great because it establishes what Barry’s in search of: a purpose. His partner believes that purpose is to take bigger jobs (thereby earning bigger payouts) from a Chechen mob boss.
When Barry follows his mark (the lover of the mob boss’ wife) into a Los Angeles theater class, he discovers his true purpose:
And in that contradiction– that inherent incongruity with what is expected– lies the dynamism of the character. It also happens to the hook for the show: the audience wants to see what will happen when two identities that seem mutually exclusive– a killer and a theater actor– clash.
When you give characters traits, values, or goals that seem to contradict their archetype, you create layers of complexity. And complexity makes for more authentic characters.
Barry isn’t the only character given this treatment. Hank, a Chechen mobster, is affable, flamboyant, and gracious (he offers sandwiches and juice boxes to Barry when he first arrives at the mob boss’ home).
His colorful personality, so at odds with his violent lifestyle, make for a funny, engaging side character.
To craft a great character, start with a familiar archetype or trope, then introduce an unexpected and seemingly contradictory trait/value/goal. The end result will be a complex, memorable, and interesting character.
Now go watch Barry!
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