Some people might think that the natural next step after nailing your premise is to start to structure a plot. And that’s a legitimate way to go: get out your index cards, start thinking about plot turns and action sequences. Where should that cool action sequence I’ve come up with go in my script?
But I find that when I’m writing at my best, when I’m creating organic and meaningful plots that have a greater weight and thematic meaning, it’s because I’ve really worked on my characters before trying to come up with a plot.
Why? Because in modern narrative fiction an audience expects what happens in a movie to flow naturally from its characters: their needs, wants and conflicts. By starting from your characters, you’re more likely to avoid that dirty feeling we get from some movies that the only reason things happen is because it is convenient for the writer that they do.
So… how do you go from the one sentence that tells you about your movie, to a whole world of characters who are going to help you get you to the end of your script?
Well, the good news is that if you’ve come up with a premise (like in step 2), you’ll already have one character and know quite a bit about them.
You might want to add a few flourishes here and there, and of course – give your main character a name, a back-story or whatever, but if your premise is solid, then you already know who your protagonist is, what happens to them and how they are going to react to these circumstances. You know the main person in your script.
The question you now have to ask yourself is who is going to join him in the world you’re creating? To find these people, we need to have a think about three very important points.
Whatever anyone tells you, the most important thing about writing a character is not whether they are realistic, sound like a real person, or even whether your audience likes them. The key thing is what they do for you dramatically. Every character has a function, and most of the things that need to happen in your script will be performed by someone.
You’ll hear a number of screenwriters talking about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (probably far more than have read it!) In Campbell’s book, among other fantastic (and sometimes pretty trippy) insights, Campbell talks about certain archetypal roles that crop up again and again in myths and stories across cultures. Whilst some of his classifications seem a bit iffy to our modern eyes, it is useful to try and think about the characters in your script with reference to these archetypes.
The key insight, here, is that all characters exist to service your protagonist’s journey. They all have a function. You need to start thinking about what characters you need to make your protagonist work.
Firstly, he will need a force with which to come into conflict: the ancient Greeks called this the antagonist.
Let’s look again at one of the premises from Step 2:
A bank robber who has decided to do one last job before he retires is tricked into stealing a safety deposit box owned by a Mafia boss and so must go on the run in order to protect his family.
In this example, the antagonist is clearly the mafia boss. He is going to pursue your bank robber, is going to provide a threat and force him to act. What is important in looking for an antagonist is to find a character is at least equally as powerful as your protagonist and — most important of all — is going to make your protagonist change.
Please note: while it is the case in this example, the word “antagonist” isn’t synonymous with “bad guy”. Often, in romantic comedies, for example, the antagonist is the person with which your protagonist falls in love.
The next question you’ve got to ask yourself is what is it the bank robber wants to achieve, what is the object of their quest? Answer: not the safety deposit box. More often than not, our heroes have a very human aim.
In the example above, the clear aim of the character is to ensure the safety of his family. Who do you choose to personify that: a wife, a child, parents? Great Aunt Gladys? Possibly not, but it must be someone specific, someone who clearly and precisely embodies why the protagonist continues with their struggle.
Of course, films have more characters than just an antagonist and an object. This supporting cast, however, should all have a key role in completing the premise of the film and better understanding its central character.
We know the robber needs to pull off a job: who is going to help him with that? Most bank robbers have a team around them, who is in your guy’s team: a mentor, a mentee, a confidante? We also know the bank robber was tricked: but who did the tricking? Someone he trusts? Someone we would never expect?
In order to build your character list, interrogate your premise, and ask yourself the questions above, test what functions you need for your protagonist and his or her premise to work. You will start to build up a world of characters who, even at this early stage, are starting to develop distinguishing characteristics and shape: just on the basis of what they do in relation to the protagonist.
Character Wants & Needs
The second stage in character development is to fully understand each of your characters wants and needs. We already sort of did this with your protagonist at the premise writing stage.
But now we need to do this with the rest of your characters. Isn’t this a little over the top, I hear you ask? Isn’t this a lot of work?
No. The reason to fully analyse your supporting cast is that all of the characters in your screenplay need to seem to be operating coherently and independently. They can’t just do the things they do because it is convenient for you, the screenwriter: for them to seem real, their actions need to be motivated and consistent.
Let’s look at the trickster character: let’s say he’s the bank robber’s old friend and he fooled our guy into stealing the safety deposit box. Why did he do this?
Obviously, he must have had something to gain — maybe he was being paid by a rival gang, or maybe he was jealous of the robber’s position in the crew. Maybe it was a power move to get him bumped off, allowing him to become their new leader.
You’ll see that each time you get to the bottom of what your characters want, you start to open up directions in which your story might go — is there a subplot where we come to understand the reason for the trickster’s jealousy?
Fleshing your Characters Out
The final act of character creation is what I like to call fleshing out. Just adding that little bit more to each of your characters so that they become fully rounded, distinct from each other, and from the characters you see in other films of this type.
My one piece of advice? Don’t go O.T.T.
Don’t give your characters limps, eye-patches, crazy accents and elaborate backstories. You don’t want to gild the lily, you just want your characters to feel authentic and fully rounded.
Try asking some of these questions
- Where does the character come from?
- What do they do for a living?
- What do they talk like?
- Which actor would play them?
The last tip is one I find really useful, because when it actually comes to writing it will allow you to develop characters in more subconscious and hopefully more subtle way. Actors are a whole bundle of preconceptions and traits, they have inbuilt a sense of the character’s place, class, race, gender.
Bruce Willis would play a very different bank-robber to Michael Caine. Samuel L Jackson would play an awesome bank robber. Last year Sandra Bullock played a really cool version of exactly this well-known character type in Ocean’s 8.
By imagining an actor playing your character, you will start to flesh out who they are in a multi-faceted way, creating a person who reads and feels real, and who people can believe lives within the world of your movie.