Creating Unforgettable Characters
The “script doctor” Linda Seger published in 1990 a book entitled Creating Unforgettable Characters, with this subtitle: “A Practical Guide to Character Development in Films, TV Series, Advertisements, Novels & Short Stories“.
Linda Seger has notably worked as a consultant for many films and series (such as McGiver and The Bridge), and has seen thousands of scripts pass through her hands.
In Creating Unforgettable Characters, she sets out in 10 chapters her vision of creating dramatic characters:
- Investigations on the character
- Definition of the character. Coherence and paradoxes
- Character’s past
- Character psychology
- Relations between characters
- Secondary characters
- Imaginary characters
- How to avoid stereotypes
- Resolve character issues
Let’s take a closer look!
Linda Seger’s advice summary
In the first chapter Investigations on the character, Linda Seger advises to learn very closely about each of the characters that one wishes to create, for example by making contact with people who embody them in real life. The basic idea is that we only speak well of what we know.
If the advice seems common sense, one wonders how to apply it when writing a serial killer story, a medieval historical novel or a sci-fi movie in the year 4000: we contact the most serious serial killer. near, do we visit the King’s court, or do we rush off in his spaceship to reach the future? If we only speak well of what we know and what is necessary to build a character, then farewell dragons, farewell Darth Vader, farewell the blue princess, farewell Viking warriors, farewell aliens. Most of the imagination is out of reach…
Linda Seger then advises to pay attention to the cultural context of the characters, their historical period, their living environment, their profession… All these advice, judicious if it is a question of writing a realistic work, lose all relevance as soon as we leave this framework. Linda Seger actually advises to practice what ethnology and sociology have coined as participatory inquiry, or immersion inquiry. Except that in many fictions, it is absolutely impossible.
In chapter 2 on character definition, Linda Seger recommends practicing observation, basing your characters on reality. But the same problem … If you write a story with a gifted autistic person when you don’t know any personally, how do you apply this advice?
She then advises to develop several coherent qualities for each character at the same time, without forgetting to also endow them with paradoxes.
To create a plausible character, she suggests attributing to them emotions, attitudes (facing situations, facing others, facing themselves), and values - which will be revealed in particular in times of crisis – without forgetting a few details. significant ones that will make them more true.
On these last two tips, we can only agree with it.
In Chapter 3 on the character’s past, Linda Seger suggests developing the character’s past extensively, even if you never recount it – on a physical, psychological and sociological level. Indeed, knowing where it comes from, you will know better where it can go.
In Chapter 4 on Character Psychology, Linda Seger discusses what she calls the 4 Aspects of Character Psychology:
- The inner past
- Childhood in particular deeply determines the personality of the adult
- The unconscious
- We must not forget that the characters do not fully know who they are; the screenwriter must however have an idea of what is hidden in them!
- Personality type
- Linda Seger gives the example of several typologies of personality, which can inspire the creation of characters
- Abnormal psychology
- Psychopathology, even that of “normal” people, can be used to shape realistic characters
In Chapter 5 on Character Relationships, Linda Seger begins by noting that a good number of fictions have not one, but two main characters – as in the Starsky and Hutch series.
These duets are based on a double principle of attraction (they are alike) and conflict (they differ) – that it is a question of balancing.
Linda Seger then studies the case of love triangles – where two characters compete for the love of a third. This configuration multiplies the possible conflicts.
In Chapter 6 on supporting characters, Linda Seger recommends following a process for creating these characters:
- Assign them a function
- To highlight the Hero, develop the story theme, or advance the action
- Create them in contrast to others
- Each secondary character must contrast not only with the main characters, but also with the other secondary characters, to avoid monotony
- Give them body by adding meaningful details
In Chapter 7 on Dialogue, Linda Seger defines good dialogue: it should be fast paced, brief, confrontational, and easy to say. It must also reveal the personality of the characters, their intentions, their motivations, their ideas, their feelings, their characteristics.
It develops the notion of subtext: a good dialogue only says things indirectly, through innuendo.
In Chapter 8 on imaginary characters, Linda Seger defines 4 types of imaginary characters:
- Symbolic characters
- They represent great ideas, like Justice; example: Superman!
- Non-human characters
- This is the case with humanized animals in cartoons, tales, or fables
- Fantasy characters
- These are wonderful beings: elves, spirits, witches, devils, mermaids …
- Mythical characters
- They make people think and represent a cultural tradition: the cowboy, the vampire …
In Chapter 9, How to Avoid Stereotypes, Linda Seger notably criticizes the stereotypical and disproportionate portrayal of ethnic groups and women in American fiction. She advises portraying society as it is and giving characters roles that break stereotypes, even for those from standard populations (so the white American male doesn’t always have to be macho, dominant and straight, all like the black woman may as well be a prestigious lawyer).
In Chapter 10, Solving Character Problems, Linda Seger lists the characters that may be problematic and offers solutions:
- Unfriendly characters
- Even if they are made to be, the screenwriter must find a way to understand them and to accept their negative side.
- The incomprehensible characters
- When a character turns out to be dramatically bad, Linda Seger advises writing unrelated scenes for him – just to see him exist and thus better understand him.
- The vague characters
- The character can be too vague, too abstract, too coherent, too simple. To improve it, we can draw inspiration from people we know.
- Non-commercial characters
- If the character seems too negative, for example, Linda Seger offers … to compromise.
- Secondary characters
- If a secondary character takes over, Linda Seger offers … either to put him back in his place or to let him.
- Story or character problem?
- If a character really resists you … why not replace them completely?
- But make sure it’s the character that’s wrong, not the story!
- Techniques for dealing with these problems
- Linda Seger offers the following techniques:
- Free writing. Write anything about the character, and remember what helps you
- Go back to the character definitions
- Read to an audience, who will tell you what’s wrong
- Change one of its major parameters: its gender, its age etc.
Review of Creating Unforgettable Characters
Creating Unforgettable Characters is certainly an interesting read, but one that leaves a somewhat bitter taste of superficiality and incompleteness.
Linda Seger certainly provides common sense advice, but it is often vague, superficial and obvious, or sometimes totally inapplicable, without presenting any theoretical approach and ultimately offering very few conceptual and practical tools.
For example, her book does not examine the case of multiple plots, where the same character has different actantial roles, and therefore presents different sides of themselves. (Story&Drama studied this very interesting case of characters playing different roles in storylines that intersect and blend together, for example in the Pulp Fiction storyline.)
Linda Seger also makes no mention of actantial roles – as if she totally ignored the scientific narratology (formalist, structuralist…) known for a century (with the works of Polti, Propp, Souriau, Greimas etc)…
Nor does it provide a detailed study of those concepts upon which the characters’ dramatic quality relies: their relationship to the Hero’s goal, the values they represent, and their motivation.
She also doesn’t explain how to make characters evolve in the plots and the overall story – and doesn’t talk about groups of characters forming and recomposing along the way, changing the balance of power. She just evokes the idea that a character can evolve – without taking into account the overall dramatic dynamic.
Its part on the psychology of the characters represents the weakness of the whole: it limits itself to recalling evidence known since Freud (1900s…) and does not cite any psychologist subsequent to Carl Jung (1940-50s… ) whose theories were, moreover, rather fanciful and had little follow-up. It is a really very light theoretical baggage – no consideration of developments in scientific psychology, from cognitivism to psychosociology via behaviorism.
Finally, Linda Seger quotes many other screenwriters. Many sub-parts of his chapters are made from quotes borrowed from other authors, without any personal intervention… On the one hand, it’s generous and humble, on the other hand, one wonders a little Who is the author and expert on the book: her, or her colleagues? Can you really sign a textbook half of the advice borrowed from other authors?
A good point anyway: she also cites many examples of works in various genres (especially audiovisual), characters in these works, and dialogues, and thus makes her work a little more alive.
In short, for a first approach, Creating Unforgettable Characters can provide inspiration to novice authors by reviewing a number of parameters. But if you were looking for universal theoretical expertise and tools, you will probably be left hungry.
Bonus: Linda Seger’s personal site.