What A Character! 3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters

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Better Call Saul

As followers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show on AMC that wrapped its final season a few weeks ago.  But I’m not here to praise the expert storytelling (ten Emmy awards), the suspenseful scenes (too many to name) or even the superb direction (Vince Gilligan is among the best in the business).

I’m here to talk about Saul Goodman.

Saul, played by the multi-talented Bob Odenkirk, is one of the funniest and fully developed secondary characters on television.  After watching him for five seasons, I’ve fallen in love with Saul’s flagrant scheming and naked opportunism.  But what exactly makes Saul so memorable?

It all comes down to character choices.

To help you tell stories with characters as colorful and rich as Saul, here are “3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters.”  Follow these tips and you may have a spinoff show in your future.

1. Simplify Your Descriptions.  In real life, people are complex.  Unfortunately, when you tell a story, you only have a limited time to showcase secondary characters, so make your descriptions count.  To do this, simply answer the question:  Does the description paint a picture of the character for the audience? If the answer is no, make sure to add the necessary visuals to make the description pop out to a listener or reader.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies.  In some instances, it can difficult to reduce whole characters to simple descriptions.  This is where the right metaphor or analogy can help.  For example, maybe your brother-in-law is a police officer with a buzz cut who sings songs from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in public places (go with it).  One possible analogy is that your brother-in-law is like the child of Joe Friday and Lady Gaga.  Another possible metaphor is that he’s a mix of the Hardy Boys and Fallout Boy.  The key to finding the right metaphor or analogy for a character is to identify the unusual or prominent thing about the character and then offer a truthful comparison.   Even if the analogy doesn’t get a huge laugh, it will at least resonate with the audience.  Just remember: analogies should be used to augment descriptions, not to replace them.

3.  Serve The Plot.  Once you’ve boiled down your characterizations and/or added an analogy, the final step in the process is to make sure that your character descriptions serve the story’s plot.  For example, if you mention that your father used to shoot rabbits at the beginning of the story, the audience is expecting a reference to either guns or rabbits somewhere later in the story.  If you don’t deliver on this promise, they’ll begin to wonder why you chose the original description.  Once again, deliver what you promise!  The upside of doing this is that it’s also an easy way to inject humor into your stories.

Feeling better about your characters?

Get Real: 3 Tips for Telling More Authentic Stories

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As anyone who’s taken my classes will tell you, I’m a huge fan of Nick Kroll.  Kroll is a funny guy: he’s regular on Parks and Recreation, he’s toured as a stand-up with Aziz Ansari, and he has a recurring role on Children’s Hospital on Adult Swim.  But aside from his character and stand-up work, Kroll is an amazing storyteller.  How does he make his stories both funny and poignant?

It all comes down to authenticity.  

To help you tell more genuine and compelling tales on stage or on the page, here are “3 Tips for Telling More Authentic Stories”.  Follow these tips and you’ll be wowing crowds before you know it.  You may even get your own TV show in the process.

1.  Make it personal.  All great stories are personal, meaning that you (the storyteller) have a stake in telling the story.  The stakes don’t need to be big (i.e. life and death) in order for the story to be significant.  However, the higher the stakes, the more invested the audience will be in the outcomeOne quick way to uncover stakes in a story is to answer the question: What does the central character stand to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the problem?  If the answer is “nothing,” or “not much,” you probably need to investigate further.   High stakes don’t automatically make for a story good, but they’ll help you capture your audience right away.  

2.  Use lots of details. Specificity is the essential to making your story resonate, so be generous with detail.  The first time you tell or write a story, be overly specific.  Use visual language to paint a picture of the setting, characters, and problem for the audience.  Once you’ve done this, it’ll be easy to edit the piece down to a more manageable length.  The more generous you are with yourself, the more generous the audience will be with both you and your story.

3. Be honest.  Part of Nick Kroll’s appeal as a performer is his willingness to be honest with both himself and his audience.  Honesty goes a long way in storytelling: if people sense that you’re revealing something true about yourself, they’ll support you as a performer.  On the other hand, if you try to manipulate or lie to your audience, you’ll quickly find yourself at the mercy of an angry mob.  It may seem convenient to lie in the moment, but it’s always better to be truthful in the long run.  You’ll feel better about yourself in the moment and you’ll avoid nasty encounters with fans down the line.

Pretty real, right?

That’s So Funny! 5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories

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Louis CK

I’m a huge fan of Louis C.K.  Louis is a masterful performer whose spot-on observations of the human condition and casually neurotic delivery have won him praise from comedians (Chris Rock is a big supporter), filmmakers (he’s won 3 Emmys) and fans.  But what’s his secret?

You guessed it: storytelling.

It took Louis over 25 years to perfect his jokes and stories, but it doesn’t need to be such a struggle for new storytellers.  Here are ‘5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories’ for anyone who wants to lighten the mood of their stories.  With enough practice with these techniques, you may even get your own HBO Special.

1.  Find the game.  The game is the fun or funny thing played as a pattern.  In storytelling and stand-up, the game presents itself as an unusual character trait that recurs throughout the story.  Did you wear the same “Black Sabbath” t-shirt to high school every day, even though your friends told you that it smelled?  Did your boss at Rolling Stone play Michael Bolton at his? The audience may not laugh the first time, but when you return to the game later, you’ll at least get a chuckle.

2.  Use dialogue.  It’s ok to paraphrase, but the best stories include dialogue.  Dialogue allows you to recreate the speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters in the story.  Maybe there’s a guy in the office who warbles when he talks or a waitress who has a high pitched voice. The better you can recreate characters in the story, the funnier and more relatable they become.

3. Obey the rule of 3’s.  Western audiences are accustomed to hearing funny things in a three-part pattern.  While most one-liners (jokes) have a two-part structure – set-up and punch line – you have more time in stories to set up something funny and return to it later.  Introduce the game, play it, then re-introduce it a third time.  You’ll blow your audience away and get a big laugh.

4.  Play to the top of your intelligence.  Don’t make jokes that infantilize your audience.  If something isn’t funny to you, it probably won’t win over your audience.  You may get a small guffaw, but it’ll end up being more distracting in the long run.  Be smart and play smart.

5.  Don’t force your jokes.  If a joke doesn’t land, move on.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the joke isn’t funny, it just means that this particular audience doesn’t find it funny.  Flopping is part of being a good storyteller, so don’t worry too much.   Everything in life that’s worthwhile takes practice, and you’ll eventually find the funny thing.  Just remember that it took Louis C.K. almost 30 years to kill in front of an audience, so be patient with you stories.

Feeling funnier already, right?