Designing the Characters

Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell

Who are the people in your story going to be? Why do I care about them? Will anybody else? What is the journey my hero/heroine is on? What is his or her major flaw? These are just a few questions to ask before laying out a character arc. You want to have engaging characters that are not perfect. Nobody likes a perfect person! All of my TV heroes have been flawed. For example...

JIM ROCKFORD - The Rockford Files. He was put upon by the system. An ex-con, ex-loser who had too big a heart and a sense of pragmatism that fought his heroic instincts. Through it all, he persevered, and became TV's first anti-hero.

RALPH HINKLEY - Greatest American Hero. His biggest flaw was the suit itself. He only wanted to be a high school teacher. The suit wrecked his life. He struggled to maintain his normalcy while wearing red Spandex and a cape, (pretty funny, I thought).

VINNIE TERRANOVA - Wiseguy. Vinnie was being seduced by the very thing he was trying to arrest. He was a forty thousand-dollar a year Fed, who was now given the chance to infiltrate the Mob. With this came all of the Mob perks. He could now live in the lap of luxury, drive a Porsche Targa, hang out with actresses and glitter princes, etc...

How does this blue-collar guy keep his moral compass straight, in the face of this seduction? I thought his internal struggle was intensely interesting to write.

The flaws in a character are always more interesting than the strengths. In Riding The Snake, Wheeler Cassidy is the ne'er-do-well son of a rich, now-dead father. He is wasting his life away at the country club bar, drinking too much, seducing other men's wives. He would appear on the surface to be an unsympathetic lout, but when we're inside his head we see he is troubled and confused and questions his own morality. He is looking to redeem himself, but doesn't know how.

After his brother is murdered, he finally has to come to grips with his life and who he is. He decides to step up and risk everything. His journey is tortured, but at the end of the novel, he is rehabilitated and looking toward a future with the right values.

Also in this novel is Tanisha Williams, an African-American homicide detective. She joined the police because her baby sister was killed in a drive-by shooting when a car full of "bangers" were trying for her boyfriend. Guilt and a sense of hopelessness drive her back to school and finally to a college degree in criminology. She becomes a cop and wants to return to South Central L.A. to try to stop gang killings. She is on a journey to find peace within. Wheeler, at first look, poses a problem for her. A white, country club lush, the stereotypical white-on-rice jerk. Soon she sees beneath his complex surface, and what she discovers surprises her, and eventually changes her life. Characters on sometimes-painful journeys make for good dramatic writing. Choose them carefully and plan their trip.


Make sure they are fully rounded. A good antagonist will help to define the protagonist. Heavies who twist their moustaches and know they are evil are cliches, and belong in comic books.

Remember, Hitler thought he was performing a service to mankind when he gassed six million Jews. In his mind, this was valuable social retribution, not genocide. If you are going to write him as the complex monster that he was, you must see inside that twisted logic. Show that he believed he was a hero, despite the fact that he was one of the most infamous villains' mankind has ever seen. Finding the motivation for the villain is extremely important. Make him or her a believable character.

Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell
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