One common problem I see in beginner screenplays is characters who seem to exist only to experience the plot of the story. It’s like they’ve spent their whole life waiting for the movie to fade in. They often live alone with no family or friends, no significant other, no hobbies, no plans, no dreams. But real people aren’t like that.
In American Hustle (written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell) we meet the main character of Irving in the midst of a full life. At the start of the story (the movie jumps around a bit in time, so the start of the movie is actually the middle of the story) he has a rocky relationship with his wife, a child, and a thriving con business with a woman with whom he’s having an affair. Then he’s caught in a sting by Richie and the story starts – complicating his very active life. As a result, Irving feels like he could be a real person.
I am not a fan of using back-story to develop character. I find it difficult to write out the character’s history unless I know who they are now. The character will need specific personality traits, goals and flaws to make the story work. Any back-story should be created to support those things. If you start by developing back-story, you may not end up with the character you need for your movie.
However, if we're to meet the character in the midst of a life, at some point we probably need to construct at least a minimal back-story. For example, who is in the character’s family? What is his (or her) relationship with them? Who are his friends? How did he get into his job? Is he good at it? It’s not the history that’s important so much as the web of life currently surrounding the character.
One thing you can do is plan out how the character spends an average week. Do they work? Is it a 9-5 job or are the hours variable? What do they do with their free time – watch television, hit the bar, go to the gym, play with their kids, attend a book club? When and what do they eat? What chores do they have to do? Who do they interact with during all of this? Who do they like interacting with and who really gets on their nerves?
Even loners usually have some relationships. In While You Were Sleeping (written by Daniel G. Sullivan & Fredric LeBow), the main character, Lucy, is a lonely heart. This is wonderfully illustrated in a scene where she tries to get a Christmas tree into her apartment by herself. But she still has a job as a transit toll collector, coworkers she’s friendly with, a building manager she interacts with, a sleazy neighbor who hits on her, and a cat.
Her (written by Spike Jonze) also features a lonely main character. But we see his job where he interacts with a gregarious receptionist. And he has a couple friends with whom he socializes. Plus, he’s still trying to untangle his life from his ex. We also see him pass the time by playing a very immersive video game.
In both these cases, though the characters are loners, we enter in the midst of what feels like real lives.
Another thing to consider is what the character’s plans and dreams are. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Stories are what happens while the characters are making other plans.
At the beginning of While You Were Sleeping, Lucy dreams of one day going to Italy, while trying to work up the courage to talk to a cute passenger who goes through her line at work every day. Meanwhile, she’s upset at being asked to work on Christmas since she’s the only one without family. Not to mention the very small plans, like the aforementioned Christmas tree. Lucy may not be very ambitious, but she's going about life like a regular human being with an eye to the future.
Or consider Some Like It Hot (story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The story is about Joe and Jerry, two musicians who witness a mob hit and have to go undercover as women in an all-girl band. But they aren’t planning any of that when we meet them.
Instead, they have just landed a job at a speakeasy. Jerry wants to use their upcoming pay to see a dentist about a toothache, but Joe thinks they should bet it on a dog. We learn that they have a bunch of outstanding debts they need to deal with. Then they lose their job when the speakeasy closes. They hock their coats to bet on Joe’s dog and it loses. They learn of another possible gig but it’s far away so they arrange to borrow a car. It is when they’re picking the car up that they witness the murder.
The toothache and dog and debts and job in the hinterlands have no real bearing on the story. But by the time we get to the murder, the catalyst that sets the whole story in motion, these guys feel like real people with real lives.
And if you give your characters lives, then we will care about what happens to them in your story.