For a second imagine your favorite television show. You know, the one you’ve followed for seasons and (most likely) own a couple of the seasons on DVD/Blu-Ray. The comedy! The drama! The misadventures! Besides the plotlines, the thing that keeps you coming back is the interplay between the characters. Or in “Smallville’s” case, the second rate special effects, but I digress. That said, you remember that ONE episode that just fell flat? You know the one I’m talking about. It was if the writers had an “off day”. The jokes aren’t as funny, or the action didn’t quite match up in quality to the other episodes. Your favorite character did something that you just KNEW he/she wouldn’t do. It almost seems offensive that the television network would let such a thing slide, after obviously failing quality control and…
Okay, analogy over….
It’s been said that the difference between what is said and what is done is known as “Integrity”. If I tell you I’m the best baker this side of the Mississippi, but I have no idea what a cupcake is, my integrity takes a hit. If I say I hate kids, but then turn around and adopt an orphanage….you get the idea.
Fictional characters are no different. When the creator a character (ahem, that would be you) develops the characters traits, needs, wants, drives, desires, and moral compass, you more or less have to stick to them to make the character GENUINE. Can you challenge the character’s foundation? Of course, that’s where conflict comes from. However changing that foundation is certain death.
On the television show “24” Kiefer Sutherland WAS Jack Bauer. Many episodes and directors later, Sutherland was still the guy who wore the bullet proof vest and pistol. He knew that character more than anybody. Legend has it that Sutherland (as an executive producer on the show) would challenge the writers whenever they came up with something that “Jack wouldn’t do”. Which I find hilarious, because Jack did damn near everything on that show. I guess some hack writer had a scene of Jack playing Nintendo Wii while munching on donuts.
A more nuanced example. On the 90s sitcom “Family Matters”, the character Steve Urkel was introduced as a nerdy date for the teen-aged Laura Winslow character. Steve was socially awkward and had a high pitched voice. The character tested so well that Urkel was added to the show. His transition was more gradual, but the show began to cater episodes around Steve. He went from being a nerd who couldn’t dance, had a silly car and loved cheese (all plausible), to a mad scientist that cloned himself, created a robot that became a member of the Chicago Police Department, and developed a teleportation device in his spare time. The character became a caricature, and audiences changed the channel in droves. In fact, the Steve Urkel character was responsible for the success AND the demise of the show he appeared on.
“Okay, okay oh wise sage of free literary and creative advice. How do I avoid cutting the legs off from underneath my character? How do I evade the urge to put my Rocky Balboa character in a dress?”
First of all, thank you for your kind words. Secondly, it’s easier than you think. I’m a firm believer in a character beat sheet. Like a dramatic beat sheet, a character beat sheet is where you write down EVERYTHING about a character. Measurements, birthdays, likes, dislikes,and backstory are just a few of the things that would go into a character beat sheet. When you decide to put your character in a new episode, make sure you READ the sheet again before you put pen to page.
“Why?” I can hear you say “I have got my character right here in my head, Flobo. Pssh, I’m not doing all that work.”
I say spend some extra time now so you will save time on a couple of rewrites later. Oh, and when it comes to creative ideas and the law, an idea in your head is as good as the piece of paper it’s written on. You can take that to the bank.
The last thing you want as a creator of a character is have your AUDIENCE look at you and say:
“She wouldn’t do that!”