Writing Sympathetic Characters, Never Giving Up, & the Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid: Lessons from the 2006 Austin Film Festival
Part 3 of 3

by Jay Robison

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

PART 3 - Bobcat Goldthwait on Liking Your Characters

Probably the most entertaining Q&A I attended followed a screening of the film Sleeping Dogs Lie, with the writer and director of the film, Bobcat Goldthwait. Yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait. And if this comedy had a rather sick and twisted premise, the movie itself had surprising heart. Quite an accomplishment when the plot revolves around your heroine having had unnatural relations with her dog and what happens with that secret is revealed to her fiancée and family.

And yet, as a screenwriter, Goldthwait has you rooting for this woman and against those who would judge her harshly. By rights, we shouldn't like anyone who commits an act of bestiality, and we should be happy to see that person humiliated. So how did Bobcat avoid this? It was as an amazingly simple yet profound a piece of writing wisdom as I've yet come across. He said, simply, "I never had contempt for any of my characters."

I've been digesting that gem for most of the past week, and the more I think about it, the truer I find it to be. How often do we find a great villain and think how much we love to hate them? And its usually because that character's creator has given that villain something that you like, something that you, the reader or viewer, can connect with. Think of Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series: J.K. Rowling made this monstrous villain an orphan, someone not unlike her hero in many ways.

Liking your characters, hero or villain, makes your story better. It's not so much that having a likeable hero will engage people in your story. That's true, as far as it goes. Actually liking the characters: that's the secret that allows me, as a writer, to create flawed heroes and complex villains. And if I find them interesting, odds are my readers will as well.


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