Guest Post: The Importance of Layers

Photo credit: @Doug88888 on Flickr
A workshop discussing how to pitch your book to Hollywood was a big hit at RT14, but it got me thinking: how many of those books are truly ready to make the leap? Even if the concepts are commercial and the characters castable (meaning the roles are juicy enough to attract good talent), is there enough material there to sustain a film or television series?

“I need someplace to take the characters,” said a successful screenwriter friend when we discussed adapting books for episodic television. “What are the main characters’ dark sides? What are their Achilles’ heels? How do you inspire a writers’ room to find fresh stories to tell about a character’s psyche season after season?”

The answer, of course, is giving your characters layers that a screenwriter can gradually peel away. It doesn’t require an info dump, or even going beyond what most of us do already. Those complex breakdowns many of us write for our characters are the only road map you need. What are their hopes, dreams, and flaws? What do they love, hate, and fear? Dig deep, and give your characters secrets that will subtly or not so subtly influence their dialogue and actions, depending on how far down those secrets are buried.

To illustrate, a character in my current manuscript is a rule follower, one who is driven to always do the honorable thing. That’s not a bad trait in a hero, but he becomes a cartoon character if there is nothing beyond a sense of honor motivating his actions. Only I know of the shame that informs his every move, one that will be slowly revealed. He will never come out and say, “I do X because of Y,” because this isn’t a story of a guy in therapy. But hopefully, if I plant the seeds correctly and compellingly, both my readers and a potential screenwriter will sense the darker dimensions that simmer beneath his shiny exterior.

Kes Trester is a former feature film development executive and television commercial producer. Her (hopefully) soon-to-be published YA thriller 7 DAYS is currently under option for a television series. She is represented by Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary. Check out her website at and you can find her on Twitter (@kestrester) as well. 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Do your characters have layers? @kestrester discusses why it's so important on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)  
.@kestrester says "Give your characters secrets that'll...influence their dialogue & actions." Thoughts? (Click to tweet)


Leandra said...

These are good tips, thanks! Flat characters are definitely boring characters. And nobody wants that! =)

RoweMatthew said...

I love layers. You definitely need them for a TV show, but rather than be subtle from the beginning, I like to start with a big dramatic character concept and then slowly draw back the layers to show how different, changed or complicated they are.

Ava Jae said...

I agree! :)

Ava Jae said...

Interesting! I could see how that approach could also be effective, when done correctly.

Kes Trester said...

The action opening is very popular in filmed entertainment, wherein you start with a bang, both in terms of character and action. Both approaches are terrific, it simply depends on the type story you're telling.

RoweMatthew said...

On a slightly related note everyone should watch Orphan Black

Ava Jae said...

Yet another show to add to my list!

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