Well-known SA author and lecturer Jo-Anne Richards likens writing great characters for screen or television to ice-bergs. "The sparkling tip of them is what you see on the screen. The vast bulk of them is the back story. You may not see it, but it must be there."

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Jo-anne Richards
Richards says before you can create believable and distinctive characters, you have to understand them thoroughly. "Much of this may never appear, but you need to have created it in order to understand - instinctively - how they will behave and respond to any given situation."

Creating characters is a central part of the screen writing enterprise. No matter how plot-driven a story, without good characters it will be flat. "You can have any number of horsemen galloping across the steppes to war, but if your viewers care for none of them, it will have no impact at all."

Richards is a co-creator of The Character Course, which takes writers and would-be writers through every step of the process of creating vivid and surprising characters.

They work with a psychologist, "who gives insight into the deeper ebbs and flows that make people tick. The psychologist also helps writers to understand motivation: Why do different people respond so differently to the same situations?"

She believes a screen writer's repertoire of skills is not complete without the ability to dream up compelling characters.

At The Writer's Course, they help participants understand "how to create characters that leap to life from page or screen," citing Jane Tennison, Tony Soprano or David Genaro, among others, in the soapie Rhythm City as passionate characters in which viewers believe in.

Richards considers that successful characters are memorable because the writers who originally conceived them were able to dream up complex characters that were able to enthrall, surprise and, at times, shock the viewers.

She points out that the very best writers bring to their life's work a range of talents and capacities that they possess thanks to their DNA. But even they - and certainly many other writers - benefit from learning the skills and conventions of their craft.

For Richards, the tragedy of the South African TV industry is that young writers usually learn on the job, a situation that makes them "suffer from not having mastered some of the basic skills of television writing - skills easily taught in a workshop environment."