Screenwriting 101: How to plan & write a solid character

I’d like to preface this post with – as usual – the quick disclaimer that I am not a screenwriting expert, nor do I claim to be any more knowledgable than anyone else. However I have done a lot of research and practice on the subject and have multiple screenplays to my name.

In an expansion of my last Screenwriting 101 post, I want to talk more in-depth about how I approach creating a character. Normally, you either begin a screenplay with a basic plot or a basic character in mind, and from there you develop the other as needed. But even if you begin writing with a character who’s alive and kicking inside your head, they’ll still need a lot of development before they’re a realistic, three-dimensional character who your audience can relate to or believe. While you can have unrealistic settings, plotlines and whatever else that’s completely fictional, the characters must always have some semblance of believability. Even if that’s as simple as their characteristics are believable, while say their appearance or abilities or history isn’t. Writing fiction (in my opinion and experience) isn’t about writing realistic stories, because with realistic characters even the most far-fetched and truly fantastical stories can become as real as our every day lives.

So my top ways of exploring a character and expanding on them are as follows…

Plan as you go along
Sure, it can be really helpful to have a detailed character biography and description as you’re writing, but I tend to find characters develop by themselves as you write, and I truly say this without any hint of sarcasm – they write themselves. You get to know your characters and can feel what they’d say or how they’d react in a situation, so although plans are great to start out with, you’ll likely have to alter them as you go along. So don’t stress too much about your original plan – use it as a skeleton for the character, not a full body and soul. And even though it can be a bit unnerving, don’t panic or hold back if they change from your initial plan. Sometimes people change, and your characters can too. Let it be organic.

What are the character’s goals?
Character goals are incredibly important. When I first began writing I thought they were unimportant, as it was unlikely the audience would even see or hear about the goals, and surely the only things that mattered were ones that would be visible to the audience? What I discovered after years of writing was how you need to know those things about the character. Not every single character, but your main characters, it really helps round them out when writing if you know their goals. Their relationship, personal, professional, long-term, short-term goals. Think about how many goals you set for yourself (both subconsciously and consciously) and then apply those categories to the character. It particularly helps shape their responses to things.

What are the character’s ideals and morals?
Things that define all of us are our ideals and our convictions, and how much emphasis we put on those. I know that personally my morals are one of the most important things about my character and they determine everything I do and say and believe. Even without realising, my ideals affect me on a daily basis. They affect my relationships, my decisions and every aspect of my life. The same goes for your main characters. Not only what they believe in, but how important it is to them. Are they willing to break their ‘rules’ easily? Or would they sacrifice anything before their morals? Having a character with loose morals, or with incredibly fixed morals, makes for very interesting characterisation. And again, it helps you know what they’d say or do.

What one thing would they sacrifice those morals for?
Just as everyone has morals, everyone has that one thing they’d sacrifice them for. As I said, our morals often define a significant portion of who we are, so giving them up or compromising them changes who we are and in extreme cases could completely destroy you. Yet everyone, however strong their convictions, has one thing they’d ignore them all for – whether it’s love, or freedom, or a specific person, or safety, or money – everyone has that one thing. When you learn what that thing is, you have a lot of power over writing the character and your plot can be developed considerably to test the character.

Learn how to break a character, and you learn how to write them.
This may make me sound like a cynic, but I believe if you know how to break your character – emotionally and mentally, not physically as such – then you learn a great deal about them. If you can destroy their spirit then you can rebuild it, or leave it derelict, and watch how they proceed when they’re forced to live like that. Broken characters are the most interesting to write, in my opinion, because they are still going, even if it’s only in the smallest capacity. Even if they’re only still breathing, that still takes strength. There’s a reason they’re still going. You need to find out what their reason is, and in finding out what broke them, you can find out so much about them.

Every single character in your script is the main character in their own story.
One mistake writers (myself included) frequently make is forgetting to flesh out their secondary characters. Sure, background characters and extra are okay to be two-dimensional, but if a character if in more than one scene, or have several lines, then they should be a whole character, not just surface. Obviously your protagonist, antagonist and supporting characters will be the most full (and will probably write themselves mostly) but remember that all your main character’s friends, family, opponents etc. are the protagonist for themselves. When they leave a scene they don’t just stop existing, they are real people 24/7 and have lives outside of what you include them in. If you forget that then your supporting characters will be your downfall and seem flat against the fully-built main characters.

Do they need people around them, or do they need to be isolated? Why?
A fundamental difference among people is their social needs and how they act in social situations. The role they take in a group and how they react around others reflects who they are and can reveal a lot about a person. Often characters are double-sided in that they appear one way around others, and another when alone or with a trusted one. The contrast you can write between the two is important and intriguing to the audience, and it helps fill out the character.

Finally, in the genres I most write – science-fiction, fantasy, thriller, drama – there are a few questions I’ve worked out help me characterise a person. How they act in certain situations is normally very different to the other characters, and it can help to know those differences when writing set pieces or serious storylines or just in general dialogue.

  1. How they act when their life is threatened
    A big one for me when writing is how a character acts when their life is threatened. Whether that be someone holding a gun to their head or a zombie apocalypse or a serious illness, people’s reactions to their life being endangered are all different and tell us a lot about the person.
  2. How they act when a loved one’s life is threatened
    Similarly to the previous situation, how we react to someone we care about being in danger is a big signifier of who we are. Whether we prioritise our own safety or theirs, whether we cry or get angry, whether we stay positive or are realistic. The difference between this and our own life is normally a big one.
  3. How they act in a crisis
    Again, people in a crisis all react differently. Often they take control and become heroic, or they shut down their emotions and don’t react at all, or they breakdown and cry or get furious – all of these make writing your character a lot easier because you know how they’ll react, and then with more in-depth thought you can explain why they’re reacting that way. Is it because of a past experience, or are they just naturally that kind of person?
  4. How they act when a stranger needs help
    Another big part of personality is compassion. If you saw a stranger in need, how would you react? It could be that they’re homeless, or something’s threatening them, or they need a ride – in the kind of genres I write determining whether my character would say, leave them because there’s not enough supplies, or take them and ‘figure it out later’, that says a lot about the character.
  5. How they act around death
    Finally, how your character reacts to death. Now this may not come into play in your screenplay, but it often will in my scripts, and knowing whether a character will move on straight away and act coldly, or whether they will break down, or whether they’ll get angry and punch stuff – all that adds to the overall personality again. It tells the audience something about the character. Something else important to note is whether they react differently to the death of a stranger and a loved one – to them, does one matter more than the other? Why?

Obviously when writing a character all these questions may not apply, or you may not need to answer all of them for a good, detailed character. They’re just what I’ve found helps. The main things to consider is how they react to different situations and people, why they react that way and whether their internal reaction matches their external one. Interaction, reaction; cause and effect – these are the primary bases for screenwriting, and apply to scenes and your characters.

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