The Screenwriting Process – Step 3. Characters

Categories Screenwriting Craft, The Process
Developing characters for your screenplay.

Some people might think that the natural next step after nailing your premise is to put together a plot. And that’s a legitimate way to go.

But I find that I’m creating more organic and meaningful plots when I’ve done some work on the characters who will people the narrative beforehand.

Why? Because that way the plot flows naturally from their needs, wants and conflicts, and I avoid that slightly dirty feeling you get from some scripts that things are only happening because the omnipotent author needs them to.

So… how can you go from 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, you’ll already have one character and know quite a bit about them.

You might want to add a few flourishes here and there – give your main character a name, a back-story or whatever, but if your premise is solid, then you know who your protagonist is.

The question then is, who is going to join him in the world you’re creating? And to get to that, we need to think about three things…

Character Function

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 the audience likes them. The key thing is what they do for you dramatically.

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 the book, among other fantastic insights, Campbell talks about the archetypal roles that can be found in myth or stories. Whilst some of his classifications are a bit iffy, it is useful to think of characters in this archetypal way. The key insight, here, is that they exist to service your protagonist’s journey.

Assuming that the main character in your premise is your protagonist, 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 antagonist.

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 the example above, the antagonist is clearly the mafia boss. He is going to pursue your bank robber, and force him to change. (Please note, the antagonist is not another word for bad guy.)

And finally, what is it the bank robber wants to achieve? Answer: not the safety deposit box. The clear aim of the character’s love or desire is the safety of his family. Who do you choose to personify that: a wife, a child, parents? Great Aunt Gladys? Probably not.

But the premise requires more than just an antagonist and the object. The bank robber was tricked: but who did the tricking? Someone he trusts who betrayed him?

What’s more…

Will he need some help with his heist? Most bank robbers have a team around them? Who is in your guy’s team: a mentor, a mentee, a confidante?

Ask these questions, 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 in the descriptions above, are starting to develop distinguishing features), just on the basis of what they do in relation to the protagonist.

Character Wants & Needs

The second stage in 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. The reason is that all of the characters in your screenplay need to operate in a coherent and independent manner, and not just do the things they do because it is convenient for you, the screenwriter.

Let’s look at the trickster: the bank robber’s old friend, who fooled him into stealing the dangerous safety deposit box, maybe. We might ask ourselves why did he do this? Obviously, he had something to gain — was he being paid by someone else, or did he have it in for the protagonist the whole time?

If you get to the bottom of why each of your characters does what they do, then you start to open up avenues that your story might take.

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, and distinct from each other in your screenplay.

My one piece of advice on this? Don’t go O.T.T.

Don’t give your characters limps, eye-patches, crazy accents and elaborate back stories about how your villain, had he not been abused as a child, probably wouldn’t have turned out to be the world dominating maniac they are today. Don’t gild the lily.

But, if you feel you need to give your characters a little bit more definition, try thinking about some of the following questions:

  • Where do the characters come from?
  • What do they do for a living?
  • What do they talk like?
  • Which actor would play them?

The last tip is a really useful one, because when it comes to writing it allows you to add definition and differentiation in a subconscious, and hopefully more subtle way.

Bruce Willis would play a very different bank-robber to Michael Caine. Samuel L Jackson would play an awesome bank robber. This is much better than giving your bank robber a limp or a traumatic (but irrelevant) childhood memory.

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I'm James, a screenwriter working in the film and TV industry. To get in touch, see my e-mail contact page.

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