Keys to Success: 5 Ways to Create Great Characters

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The first time I saw the sketch comedy show Key and Peele on Comedy Central, I had to pause the show because I was crying with laughter.  See the clip below:

Funny, right?  But how do Key and Peele keep the jokes flowing?

The answer is pretty straightforward: great characters.

All stories work in service of great characters, so to help you bring dimension to the characters in your stories, here are “5 Ways to Create Great Characters”.  These tips will help you capture the people in your stories quickly and effectively and will likely help you get a laugh in the process.

1.  Discover the character’s point of view.  The first step in creating a great character is to unpack the character’s beliefs about the world.   What is this person’s personal philosophy? Is this person an optimist or a pessimist?  Maybe you had a basketball coach who was secretly suspicious of everyone on the team.  Or maybe you had a boss who told you that “everything happens for a reason”.   Once you understand the character’s point of view, it will be much easier to identify the character’s game (see “5 Ways to Add Humor to Your Stories”) and add a few laughs to the story.

2.  Know the backstory.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, backstory is critical to capturing character.  Before starting your story, take the time to identify the events that shaped the characters in the story.  Maybe the same boss who told you that “everything happens for a reason” grew up in a town of 20 people and was the prom king of his high school.  Changes your perception of him, right?  The more information you offer about a person’s past, the more nuanced and interesting the character becomes.

3.  Identify the character’s status. To understand the character’s status, it’s important to pin down two things: (1) the character’s actual position in the societal hierarchy; and (2) how the character perceives him/herself in the pecking order.  Once you know these two things, the character will instantly become more relatable.

 4. Show off the character’s speech patterns and mannerisms.  There’s no easy way to do this, so be patient.  That said, one storytelling trick I use is to record a spoken version of the story and then transcribe the story verbatim.  The process of transcribing dialogue will help you discover your speaking style and better understand the characters in the story.

5. Have fun!  Once you’ve created a great character (steps 1-4), place your character situations that confirm the things the audience already knows.   For example, if we know that your basketball coach is suspicious of everyone on the team, show us a moment when the coach discovers two players whispering in the locker room.  It’ll be fun for the audience to watch and will deepen your connection with the character.

Creating great characters takes time (Key and Peele winnowed 330 sketches down to 82 for this upcoming season), so make sure to be patient with yourself.  With enough work and time, however, you’ll have audiences laughing and crying along with your stories.

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