By: Aaron Merrill
Leslie Knope is crazy. She works too hard, does too much, loves too hard, cares too much. But whether she’s fighting for a park, organizing a Harvest Festival, or hating those stuck up rich folks from Eagleton, she’s always interesting.
Over 7 seasons, Amy Poehler breathed life into a small-town government bureaucrat, inventing one of the most dynamic, expansive, and layered characters on television. And sure, Amy Poehler is a transcendent comedic genius, but let’s break down the game film, to see how you might make great characters.
All of Leslie Knope’s various (exhausting) activities emanate from a simple truth at the core of her being; she cares. She cares about work, she cares about her friends, she cares about her town, she cares about JJ’s world famous waffles.
All characters start with a “thing”. In a scene, your thing might be that you love books, or you hate dogs (you monster). But a thing is just a trait. A core is something deeper, a lens for making all decisions.
A core animates your choices. A thing just gives you something to do, a core gives you a way to do anything.
If Leslie Knope was just doing her thing, she’d be working hard and doing good for Pawnee. That would be a reasonably interesting, if predictable character. Much like the first season of Parks. But by finder her deeper core, Leslie Knope becomes empowered to swim in a dumpster with Ron’s ex-wife, win a spot on the City Council, and even fail at her dreams, carrying the audience along through her trials and adventures. It all feels grounded and real, even at its craziest highs and lows.
So find your character’s core. Justifying your thing can be a great way to start. You can begin with a thing, or a deal, but dig deeper. Your character enters a scene, and all you know is that you love bubble gum. That’ll get you a line or two of dialogue, and maybe a laugh. But to carry it farther, ask why does your character love bubblegum? Maybe bubblegum symbolizes an innocence lost. Now your core is nostalgic. So when another character mentions Bob Dylan, your character really HAS AN OPINION about Dylan, and the audience buys it.
A deal is just a point, and then a justification is another point. Two points make a line, and a line gives you a trajectory. You can follow that path through a scene. All the way to JJ’s, for those waffles, with your friends.