It’s more than a noxious Calvin Klein fragrance. It’s a way to elevate your screenplay by not filling it with stereotypical sidekicks, confidants, and evil henchmen–a common amateur screenwriting mistake.
In 13 Screenwriting Tips from Sherlock Holmes (Part 1), I noted that while the villain’s muscle of the operation, Dredger, looked like a massive Cockney brute, he could–surprisingly–speak fluent French. While it’s not an obsession per se, it’s a distinguishing trait which made him a memorable minor character–far more interesting than the typical henchmen in your average action-adventure movie.
Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith also used obsessions to create a memorable supporting cast in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. Kat Stratford’s best friend, Mandella, was obsessed with William Shakespeare to the point that she comes up with various ways to kill herself in order to join the Bard in heaven. Bianca Stratford’s original love interest, Joey Donner, had a more superficial obsession–his modeling headshots and local tube sock campaign. Of course, the most memorable supporting character in 10 Things was Miss Perky, who had a secret life as a romance novelist.
Miss Perky was played by Allison Janney, most known for her stellar portrayal of CJ Cregg in The West Wing. Any screenwriter would be lucky to have such talent interested in their screenplay–and creating unique minor characters can be one way to do that.
So by now, I hope I’ve convinced you that an obsession can really vitalize your screenplay–and that your side characters can’t leave home without one! Here are 25 obsessions to help you in your pursuit of creating memorable screenplay characters:
- fly over the Bermuda triangle
- meet your doppelganger (also an obsession of the cast of How I Met Your Mother)
- launch a rabid campaign to bring back a TV show that got cancelled (Veronica Mars, season 4 anyone?)
- master etiquette according to Emily Post
- amass 1,000 followers on Twitter–not so easy if you’re not Ashton Kutcher
- write a love song to your high school sweetheart
- read the entire Bible
- shake Ron Paul’s hand
- attend the Gentlemen’s Singles Finals at Centre Court, Wimbledon
- tape John McEnroe cursing at you
- making the perfect blueberry pancake
- track down your favorite former child star, now living in semi-obscurity (Kirk Cameron, I’m there!)
- visiting the graves of all the presidents
- winning Free Cell game #11982
- pet a koala
- etymology–the study of the origins of words (Dr “Bones” Brennan does this on the hit crime procedural, but I think it’d be used to even better effect with a character whom you wouldn’t expect to study it…a parkour enthusiast, perhaps?)
- eat vegan for a year
- buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy extended edition in the original packaging for less than $40
- learn to waltz
- trying all flavors offered on Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day and not get diabetes
- making a new slang popular (as Gretchen tried to do with “fetch” in Mean Girls)
- playing golf on the original course at St Andrews
- becoming an extra on a movie set
- finding the perfect shade of red lipstick
- befriending a Real Housewife to get 30 miliseconds of fame on TV
If you’re afraid that your screenplay is littered with stereotypical side characters, giving them an obsession is an easy way to remedy that. But you can’t just have your character say, “Hey I’m obsessed with X,” and call it a day.
Have your sidekicks and confidants refer to their obsession in their dialogue or have them engaged in their obsessional activity while interacting with the main character. When you choose an obsession for your character, the easiest way to make their passion authentic is to include key details specific to that obsession.
Still, make sure you include your character’s obsession in a way that is natural and organic to the story. In 10 Things, Ms Perky worked on her romance novel on her office computer, and when students were sent to her by their teachers, she’d ask them for writing help instead of chastise them. So her obsession was integrated into the story and didn’t come across as an afterthought. Another reason why Ms Perky’s obsession worked so well has to do with contrast and expectations.
We, the audience, expect her to help her students–not use them as romance novel editors. We also don’t expect such a prim and proper guidance counselor to obsess about racy romantic scenes. So when you’re designing original characters based on this screenwriting tip, try to select obsessions that subvert expectations and that contrast with your supporting character’s personality.
One final thought–depending on the nature of the obsession (is it goal-based for example), how interesting it is, and what is necessary to accomplish it…it might just become part of the subplot or even the central plot that the entire screenplay is based around. I can see a comedy based around finding a former child star, can’t you?
Now it’s your turn: any obsessions you’d like to add to the list?
Stone Heart by Steve Snodgrass