Creating believable characters is, of course, one of the most important skills for a screenwriter to master. If the main character of your story feels like a real person, then we will care what happens to them. That will get the audience involved in the story. So how do you create characters that feel like real people?
Many writing teachers recommend creating a detailed backstory, and that can be useful. But I find it nearly impossible to determine a character’s backstory until I know who the character is now. I have the same problem with those long lists of “character questions” – you know, the ones that ask what their favorite food is and where they went to second grade. The answers feel arbitrary until I really know the person the questions are about. And if I know the character, why do I need to answer all those questions?
So here are three techniques I use to create realistic, complex characters.
1. Develop Them in Three Dimensions
From the initial story conception I’ll know some of the character's characteristics, such as maybe their job or family situation. Next, I’ll start fleshing out the character in three dimensions: physical, social and psychological.
In screenplays we generally avoid extremely detailed physical description such as hair or eye color unless for some reason it’s critical to the story (Legally Blonde, for example). This is because we want to allow some range for casting. However, there are still several aspects of physicality to consider. What is the character’s age? What is their race? How athletic are they? Are they graceful, clumsy, sexy or sickly? Naturally attractive or ugly? Do they have a high-pitched, squeaky voice or a deep soothing voice? All of these things affect the character’s attitude toward the world.
Social characteristics can be thought of as demographics. Is the character single, married, divorced? Are their parents alive and do they get along with them? Are they popular, stylish, a jock or a nerd? What religion are they? Socio-economic class? Education level? What ethnicity, and are they a minority in their environment? What social groups are they part of – friends, work groups, hobby groups? Where do they live – what city and what kind of domicile? Who do they live with?
Psychological traits are about the character’s personality. Are they outgoing or shy? Optimistic or pessimistic? Patient or short-tempered? Greedy, overly-sensitive, confident, competitive, charming, uptight, lecherous and/or kind? What are they most afraid of? What do they enjoy?
2. Give Them a Contradiction
As I said, some of the character’s traits will be suggested by your concept. If the story is about a doctor, then he’s going to be well educated. You’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. Think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.
Now, look for contradictions – character aspects that separate this specific character from the norm. What if this particular doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony.
The hero in the excellent film Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John Henry Butterworth) is a soldier. We expect certain things from soldiers - bravery, toughness, discipline, maybe a little macho. We probably assume they're from working class backgrounds and have a modest education. But in this film, they made the hero a slick, fast talking PR guy for the military - and someone very afraid of going into actual combat. Those contradictions made him interesting and unique.
3. Give Them Plans
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallizes a valuable concept in creating characters. In order for your characters to seem like believable human beings, they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. The story has to interrupt a life in progress. In other words, your characters have to have other plans.
I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates this well. Richard, the main character, isn’t sitting around waiting for his daughter, Olive, to get into a beauty pageant. He has plans.
His short-term plan involves the inconvenience of taking in his brother-in-law, Frank, after Frank’s attempted suicide. In the medium term he’s trying to confirm a book deal for his “9 Steps” plan. In the long term he wants to be a motivational guru. One of the main reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want.
Let the story happen to your characters while they’re busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!
It's not unusual for me to read scripts by neophyte writers with a central character who's a loner - single, no family or friends, etc. Dedicated to their job with no outside hobbies or interests. Often they're white, middle class, mainline protestant, and in their mid-twenties - generic "movie character" demographics. Unless the story requires the character to be so one dimensional, this is usually a sign the writer is lazy. And it comes off as unrealistic - few people live like this. If you want us to care about your characters, you have to give them full, complicated lives.
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