Peggy Bechko: Getting Under Your Characters’ Skin

by Peggy Bechko



They’re pretty darn important to story whether novel or script. I mean, let’s face it, we’re not telling stories about a tree that just stands there. Heck, even the Ents in Lord of the Rings were developed characters.

But there are a lot of problems with characters in stories and how they’re developed.

Fact is, women think differently and act differently than men. It’s tough either way – whether a woman writer is developing a male character or a man is developing a female character it gets tricky.

Traditionally, it’s been the female character who’s gotten the ‘short end of the stick’.

In case you haven’t heard, many female stars complain they can’t find strong female roles out there. Lots of readers complain about the female leads in novels turning out to be little more than some kind of appendage to the stronger male lead.

Not surprising, really. Think about it. Stories so very often focus on a male hero. Whether in books or scripts. That’s the way it is.

All too often the woman has a minor role or is constantly in need of rescue or screams a lot, or is some type of arm decoration for the hero or villain. Female stars have been known to take over what was written for a man. Remember Evelyn Salt? How about Ripley in Alien(s) etc.?

So let’s talk about how to write better characters for those favorite female stars you love, or for that matter how to write better female characters for your novels.

Where to start? How about by considering your characters a people, individuals with lives before you think of them as man or woman? Hard to do? Well, if it was easy I wouldn’t be writing this.

Here are some things to keep in mind. As a human being, your character needs to be well rounded and whole. There are times when the character is funny; other times when that character is serious. Success finds that person and so does failure, and there are times when the character does something really, really smart, and times when she or he does something pointless or stupid.

Don’t forget your character has a past, like any other real, live person. And, if he or she doesn’t end up dead by the end of your script or novel, a future. The things your character has done in the past influence what they do now and forevermore.

Always remember that the characters are existing within the framework of the time you’ve delineated. BUT to be real they also have to exist outside of the framework of the story you’re telling.

Now, since we’re focusing on punching up the female character here, I’ll just say it. Don’t create a stereotype.

We’ve all done it. But from now on, don’t. Of course there are stories and situations that lean toward a male or a female. Period pieces can be even more difficult if the writer remains true to the period. For example, if the story is set in world war II women were nurses and did heroic things during the bombing of cities and other places, but they simply were not soldiers.

Unless the story is going to be set in an alternate timeline or some other SciFi trick, it will be awkward for a woman to be a grunt soldier in that context. Just something to keep in mind.

Another little trick to help with writing a female character is to keep in mind that if you have two female characters talking to each other – it should be, at least some of the time, about something more than a man. Seriously, using the war setting – there would be more to talk about between women than a man.

Think about it. People, all of us, talk about a whole lot of things. Hobbies, books, things we’ve ready, the latest political debacle, family stuff that drives us crazy, you know, the stuff of our lives. Remember that when writing for your female lead.

Since your characters are people they deserve the depth real people have. Unless your story hinges on some guy being a mindless, empty macho man, don’t make him that kind of guy – and if the story hinges on him remember to reveal why he’s like that.

Same goes for our woman character. Sure, there are lots of brain-dead bimbos who only want nothing more than marriage and a guy to support her, oh, and babies! But the same goes for her – whether novel or script – if she is that person and important to your story, WHY is she that way? And make that bit of backstory good!

And lets ’pull back on the physical details. Only if it’s very important and pertinent to the script do you use something like “she’s a stunning blonde”. Scripts are short. Are you going to waste those precious lines on an unimportant physical trait when you could better use the space to indicate something about her?

There’s a bit more leeway in a novel, but how many times have we waded through pages and pages of unnecessary description? Give your readers and audience more solid information about who the character really is. Give them something better than stereotypes.

Give them depth.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.