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Character Development
January 3, 2022

How To Create Characters for Your Screenplay

Creating characters for your screenplay that stand out can seem daunting at first. Maybe you have a plot - a series of events - but you don't yet know who will carry out those events and in what way. It can be easy to think up a name and then put pen to paper. If you do that, your characters might end up speaking in cliches and end up being there to serve the plot. So, how do you create characters for your screenplay that are unique and compelling?

Writing great characters is the most significant currency you have as a writer, whatever medium you are writing in.

It's best to think of your characters and plot as being akin to a chicken and an egg; you need both for your screenplay to work. And you need to put in the work in the early stages to make sure both your plot and characters leap off the stage.

How to create characters for your screenplay

Tip #1: Think about real people you know

The key to creating characters that grip people is to think about people you know in real life and how you can convey those on screen.

Characters on the screen are indeed larger than life - since our lives are mundane and we can't convey everything about them on screen, the key is to convey their essence.  

To do this, we need to consider different character profiles. For example, when you are planning your screenplay, write a brief bio for each character.

Start with the main characters as they are the most important. Consider the interactions between them as much as the characteristics they embody.

Do you know someone outgoing in real life who clashes with an introverted and introspective? How did the popular kids interact with the more nerdy kids? Try to emulate these dynamics in your screenplay.

You don't need to flesh out your minor or secondary characters as much as your main characters, but it's still good to have some basic details that you can fall back on when you need to.

Sometimes, when writing your script, your secondary characters will take on a greater emphasis in later drafts.

If you are writing a biopic or about real-life people, then remember you are still writing about characters. For all the research you do, you are writing your interpretation of those characters who take on a life of their own.

Tip #2: Consider character arcs

Every character in a film must go on a journey. Your protagonist has their own hero's journey, which will form the centerpiece of your blog.

But every character has their journey, which we call a character arc. So you have to consider where your character is emotionally at the start of the story you are telling and where they will land at the end. Have they moved forward in some way?

A geeky and introverted character who struggled with social interaction should come out of their shell by the end of the film or series.

An arrogant and socially unaware character might slowly develop a sensitive side that develops towards the screenplay's end.

Woman stands behind red curtain.
Every character has their journey and it's your responsibility to make it compelling.

Tip #3: Avoid flat characters

What does it mean when an executive, agent, or director says they want writers who create more rounded characters during a pitch? In short, this is when your character appears like a whole human being with a range of emotions presented in different situations.

A flat character is cliched. They tend to react the same way and say the exact phrases regardless of the situation you present them in.

To avoid writing flat characters, think about what makes your characters tick. What is going to make them angry, happy, or sad? What external factors will push them over the edge and make them bitter and resentful, and what factors will make them succeed?

Thinking in these terms means your characters react differently in different scenarios, and their journey is linear rather than static.  

Tip #4: Develop your characters through workshopping

Writing characters for the screen is different from writing characters in a novel because a real person will play them. This gives you an advantage because you can test out characters using real actors. Even during the early stages of your screenplay development, you can set up a workshop. Then, invite some actors to your house or rent a studio and allocate them to a different part.

See if the way they represent your actors is the way you thought about them on the page. If it's not, you have to ask yourself if you need to rewrite some scenes and pieces of dialogue. Another exciting workshop activity you can consider is to ask some actors to improvise some scenes based on the characters you've written. For example, they might add in character traits or take the characters in a whole new direction that you'd never even considered before.

Allow enough space in these discussions for any possibilities you can imagine to take place. Create a free-flowing atmosphere that is fun and engaging. Be also sure to take proper notes or even film the session if the participants allow it.

If you want a high-value quality environment and actors who will give you good feedback, it could be a good idea to offer them something in the way of compensation, whether money or a gift card, for their time and effort.

Otherwise, you might end up workshopping with unprofessional actors who turn up late, don't take your work seriously, and aren't open to contributing to new ideas that can improve your work.

Think about who you have in your network who could help and assist you with a workshop. For example, if you're struggling, reach out to some local acting troupes or post on a Facebook group.

Creating characters for your screenplay requires work

When J.K Rowling created Harry Potter, she said the idea and many of the characters came "fully formed" during a train ride from London to Manchester to visit a boyfriend. While the way she told this story might suggest she wrote the whole first book in one evening; in fact, the fleshed-out draft that was ready to send out to literary agents took six years!

Don't be fooled into thinking characters appear; take the time to plan your characters before you write and develop and critically evaluate them even when your first draft is finished.


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How To Create Characters for Your Screenplay
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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