It’s Modern Family’s Jay Pritchett. It’s Star Trek’s Doctor McCoy. It’s Orange Is The New Black’s Galina “Red” Reznikov. It’s a Hollywood (and small screen) staple, and some might conclude a complete cliche. Yet the ‘crusty but benign’ character, forever firing off conflicting messages of love and disdain, has something to tell us writers.
A long time ago a mentor of mine made a simple suggestion. She asked me to describe the characters in the play I was working on in ways that added contradiction.
She encouraged me to write something like this in the character list at the top of the play:
Cynthia, loyal and dutiful, yet full of great rage.
Phillip, a sharp, talkative man, but feckless and frightened of failure.
Samantha, an ambitious businesswoman, but emotionally damaged.
Aunt Shirl, a vivacious party girl with deep regrets and sorrows.
This is the ‘crusty but benign’ approach. and although it’s a crude exercise that leads to sometimes trite summaries of your character, it does remind me that characters are always more than what they appear. No-one is all good, or completely loyal, or infinitely patient, or irrevocably bad, or totally anything. Part of the fun of us humans is that we possess so many attributes, and quite often those attributes change according to circumstance.
Keep those characters complex. Keep us guessing which way they will turn. Give them opposing forces. Make their inner lives a place of hellish dilemmas. Build in the drama, right inside the character’s head, before he or she even starts on the journey.