One of the best ways to learn how to write characters that live and breathe in their own right is to study the great actors. How are they infusing life in their characters? What are they doing in their performances that transforms seemingly mundane roles into unforgettable personalities?
The 1960 western The Magnificent Seven is classic cinema for many reasons, including a great script, a great score, and great acting.
The lead character in this story is unabashedly the black-clad bald gunman Chris Adams, played by Yul Brynner. And yet Brynner’s character is overshadowed in practically every scene in which he plays with Steve McQueen.
It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes anecdote that Brynner knew—and resented—that McQueen was effectively stealing the show, despite having significantly less screen time and fewer lines.
How Did Steve McQueen’s Character Steal the Show From Yul Brynner?
Instead of taking his character at face value, saying his lines, and exiting stage left, McQueen looked beyond the dialogue and stage directions and breathed life into even his character’s most mundane scenes.
His character never just sat around in the background, looking on while Brynner’s character took the lead. He was always moving, always adding personality and idiosyncrasy, never allowing his character to become mere scenery, even in scenes where he wasn’t required to do anything but be present.
Brynner was so irked by McQueen’s scene-stealing performance that he supposedly hired an assistant just to count how many times McQueen drew attention to his character by fiddling with his hat.
What Can Steve McQueen Teach You About How to Write Characters?
McQueen’s is an example even writers can learn from.
Never settle for letting your characters lie flat on the page. You could probably get away with letting them speak their dialogue and meander off-screen, but if you look a little deeper, if you mine your character’s personality beyond the obvious, you’ll likely find a bigger, more unique personality than you realized you had.
And, like McQueen, your character may well go from bit role to all-star!