What is it about a film that holds your attention and keeps you interested for an hour-and-a-half or more? Chances are, in any film you might consider “good”, it was the characters you watched that truly held your attention. Action can keep you on the edge of your seat, but no film is 100% action. Even The Fast and The Furious had to have some dialogue scenes to give the action meaning and develop the characters enough so that you cared to see what happens to them in all that action. Great dialogue can make you laugh, cry or both; but even the repartee in Quentin Tarantino films wouldn’t be brilliant if not for his characters. Would the five-plus minutes of dialogue at the start of Pulp Fiction be as engrossing if Vincent and Jules themselves were not complete, multi-dimensional characters? Both action and dialogue are expressions of a character. If you cannot create a complete character, your screenplay will be lacking in quality, and most likely never become more than just 100 pages sitting on your hard drive.
In this article, I’ll present you with a series of questions concerning your characters that will help you fully realize them. It is all important to understand, however, that in answering these questions you must not only address the “how’s” and “what’s” of your character, but also the “why’s” that lie behind your answers. It’s not enough to know that your Character’s favorite meal is a t-bone steak; you have to know why. Therein lies your Character’s soul, and as a writer, you must always know your Character’s soul.
Ready? Let’s have at it!
SCRIPT CHARACTER FUNDAMENTALS
1) What is this Character’s role is in the story?
Is he/she your Principle (Main) Character, a Supporting Character, or a one-scene Featured Character? A Good guy or a Bad Guy? Chances are you probably know all of this already, but it is a good idea to write it down, as this is your springboard to the questions you’ll need to answer about this person you want to invent.
Also, understanding a character’s role in your story will tell you how much you really need to know about them; after all, do you really need to know when or where a Featured Character had his first kiss? Probably not. Let common sense be your guide when deciding how many of these questions you really need to answer for any given character.
2) What is your Character’s name, sex, age and (if important) nationality?
Just as these four “basics” are the first details you might come to know about a new acquaintance, they are also the first details of any character you wish to create.
Initially, a character’s name can be anything, but by the time you’re done fleshing them out, you might want to give it more thought to see if the one you’ve chosen is really fitting. Luke Skywalker’s name in the first draft of Star Wars was Luke Starkiller! Fortunately, George Lucas saw that name as being at odds with Luke’s personality and role in the story. A name can and should represent something about your character. Consider the names Han Solo, Willy Loman and Holly Golightly: they all have something significant to say about the character they label.
Age and sex are fairly obvious in their importance, but what about nationality? Your Character’s nationality might be important if you’re writing a spy thriller, or if you want to make him/her more ethnic for some reason you feel enriches your story. Keep in mind, though, if your character is of a nationality other than your own, research the customs and habits of the land you want them to represent. DON’T GUESS. A “fake” Frenchman will be noticed, diminish your script, and piss off all of those nice people at Cannes.
3) What are your Character’s needs?
The answers to this question are of paramount importance! Your Character should have both internal and external needs, and they must complement each other. Sidney Poitier played a man named Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, and while his external needs changed over the course of the film, they always resonated with his one internal need. Walter Lee Younger originally wanted to open a liquor store with two buddies, but when that tragically fell through, he shifted his need to buying a home in the suburbs. Both of Walter Lee Younger’s external needs were representative of his one internal need: to provide a better life for his family. Your Character’s needs say a lot about who they are as a person, and how he goes about pursuing them will be the flesh and blood of your screenplay’s story.
4) What is your Character’s occupation?
Knowing your Character’s career might sound silly but consider this: You wouldn’t send an accountant out to rescue the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, nor would you expect the president of a bank to struggle in his efforts to buy a home in the suburbs. Knowing your Character’s occupation is sometimes key to understanding how and why they got involved in your story in the first place. Even if your Character’s occupation has no bearing on your story, answering this question provides you an opportunity to better appreciate them. Even if their occupation is incongruous with their actions, you afford them greater depth. Joan Wilder didn’t have to be a romance novelist in order to go on her adventure in Romancing the Stone, nor did her occupation really impact the storyline; however, knowing what Joan did for a living certainly made her a more interesting character.
GODARD’S THREE (PLUS ONE FROM ME)
Now that we’ve covered the most fundamental traits of your Character, it’s time to really breathe life into them. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that in order to show a complete human being on film, you had to show them eating, sleeping and making love. I agree with Godard but I would add one other point to his list: show what they do when they’re alone. Knowing such esoteric details, whether they’re shown in the script or not, will give you a stronger and more complete character.
Let’s say you have a character named Fred, who is a 35-year-old male American nuclear physicist. With the above points, you can now grow Fred into a person who sleeps in Colorado Rockies pajamas, eats health food, pays close attention to the needs of his loved ones and reads books on Kabbalah in his alone-time. Now Fred’s a well-rounded person, not just another nuclear physicist praying for a grant or tenure. Some words of warning though, don’t get too eccentric with your answers to these questions, or you may create a character that is so diverse as to be unbelievable.
5) What/how does this Character eat?
Remember how Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) in Ocean’s Eleven was almost always shown eating some little thing, like nachos or whatnot? Or how Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in The X-Files ate sunflower seeds so regularly? These simple eating habits spoke volumes about those respective characters. In the case of Rusty Ryan, he was a man so on-the-go/on-his-toes that he rarely, if ever, had a sit-down meal. Mulder’s sunflower seeds were indicative of an oral fixation, something we would go on to discover he shared with his implied biological father, “The Smoking Man.” So how and what does your Character eat? This can be an important expression of who they are: a vegetarian, a health nut, a slob, a cultured epicurean or someone who wolfs down candy bars to fuel their manic behavior. Think about how your Character lives their life. The answer to this question should reflect how they fuel that lifestyle.
6) How does this Character sleep?
Next on Godard’s list was sleep. Indiana Jones could sleep anywhere: on a train, a plane or in a jungle. The Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club couldn’t sleep at all! Your Character’s sleeping habits can be a strong indication of not only their lifestyle, but their state of mind as well. If your character loses sleep under stress, it says something totally different about them than if they can sleep in a machine gun nest. Likewise, a character who is comfortable sleeping in the nude is very different from one who dons flannel pajamas. Know your Character’s sleeping habits -- not only over the course of the story you’re telling, but over the course of their whole life.
7) How does this Character “make love”?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that when Godard said we needed to show a character “making love,” he didn’t mean that we had to show two people humping on-screen in order to know them as complete human beings. No, I think he meant that we needed to see how they expressed their love, or even just friendship, toward others. Everyone has affections for someone or something. Even the most maladjusted, psychopathic tyrant in history, Adolf Hitler, is said to have lavished affection on his Dobermans. How your Character expresses their feelings of warmth or kinship will probably have its roots deep in that character’s childhood and psyche. Don’t hurry over this particular aspect of your Character; really give it long, careful thought. Even if there is no “love interest” in your script, knowing how your Character would express love can easily be shown in how they relate and interact with other characters.
8) What does this Character do when they’re alone?
Consider what your character does when they think no one else can see them. Just as Darth Vader only removes his mask when alone in his private chamber, most of us only show our true selves to ourselves. Perhaps you have a character who fears being alone; having to confront their true nature, thus going to great lengths never to be without companionship. For other characters, privacy and alone-time might be at such a premium that, because of their circumstances, they really indulge themselves when they do get a little privacy. In either of the above cases, the question is begged – what does this character do when they’re alone?
Does the man who avoids solitary introspection engage in frivolous and distracting activities when he cannot find others to be around? If so, what? When granted a reprieve from constantly being surrounded by others, does the person without privacy take bubble-baths, read or both?
Remember to not only ask yourself what your character does when they’re alone, but make sure you recognize why they do what they do. Know what your answer says about that character, and whether or not that statement is appropriate. Luke Skywalker probably isn’t the kind of person who peruses his vast collection of porn in his spare time, but we all know The X-Files’ Fox Mulder is...
Now that we’ve asked, and hopefully answered, the questions above, the final pieces needed to create a complete character should fall easily into place. The answers to the following questions may even be obvious, concerning your Character now, so much so that you might find your Character answering them for you!
As mentioned above, the size of any given character’s role will dictate how much actual detail they will need. For most Supporting, and smaller Featured Characters, simply addressing questions 1 through 8 should give you all you need to carry them through the handful of scenes in which they’ll appear. For your Principle Characters, and meatier Supporting ones, the more details at your disposal, the better.
9) What does this Character do for entertainment?
What is your character’s favorite TV show or movie? Do they have a favorite book? Some people watch TV; others hate TV but love to read; some enjoy both. This question may seem very much akin to the previous one (What does your character do when they’re alone?). To be fair, the questions and their answers may be very similar, but consider that not all entertainment is experienced alone. Your character may be a team sports player, like Dante in Clerks, who played street hockey, or “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, whose life revolved around his bowling league. Your Character may prefer to go to concerts, the opera or the theater, not unlike Felix Unger on television’s The Odd Couple. S/he may even be a barfly in their down time, like too many characters to name! All of these activities are usually shared with friends, or at the very least experienced with a group. Knowing what your character does for enjoyment is not synonymous with knowing what they do when they are alone -- and the differences might surprise you! Remember, “The Dude” went bowling a lot with Walter & Donny, but when alone, he toked up in a tub while listening to whale song.
Why is it so important to know what entertains your character? Few things speak more about who we are than the games we play or the diversions we embrace.
10) Where does this Character see themselves in 10 years?
This question may or may not apply to your Character. Is your character telling you that they’re a long-term planner, or a feather on the breeze? Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) in The Fast and The Furious lived his life one quarter-mile at a time. Jay Gatsby spent years amassing his fortune in hopes of living happily ever after with Daisy. Whether your Character has a plan, or no plan, it says something important about who they are as a person.
If your Character does have a plan, or a dream for the future, make sure to share it with your audience. More often than not, dreams humanize us; they ground us and motivate us, and likewise, the characters we create. Even if that dream has nothing to do with the main plot, we empathize with the character’s dreams and that empathy will have us rooting for them.
11) What is this Character’s romantic history?
Discovering the answer to this question could easily have close ties with knowing how your Character shows affection. Just as your Character’s entertainment habits may have ties to the “while alone” question, the questions and answers are certainly related, yet hardly interchangeable.
Think of your Character’s life before the events of your plot begin -- this is generally called their “back story.” Past events and experiences impact each of us uniquely; it is the same with your Character. One who has had a sparse and unfulfilling romantic history may become cold, bitter, and guarded like Ebenezer Scrooge. On the other hand, such a romantic history may lead some other character to be warm and quietly desperate for what they consider “true romance,” as in the case of Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone. Perhaps your Character married their childhood sweetheart; the only person they’ve ever loved. A romantic history of this type could be a strong motivator, as was the case with Charly Butts (Larry Hankin) in Escape from Alcatraz needing to be in on the jail break to reunite with his wife.
If your Character’s romantic history doesn’t come into play within your plot, remember: the more you know about your Character’s past, the better grasp you’ll have of who they are, their motivations and their reactions.
12) What do you know about this Character’s childhood?
Speaking of “back story”, everybody comes from somewhere; whether a comfortable and loving home in the suburbs or an inner city orphanage. Few people have as much influence on us as do our parents. Our so-called “formative years” are so named because the experiences of our youth do “form” us into the people we become as adults. The lack of parental love and guidance might make a strong character self-reliant, if undisciplined; or make a weak character needy and driven to please from a fear of abandonment. At this point, given all the work we’ve done so far, ask your character about their childhood and where they come from – I bet they can tell you all about it with some detail!
13) What is this Character’s relationship to the other characters in your story?
Once you have a good sense of your Character as an individual, you need to understand how that character relates to those with whom they’ll be interacting. If Principle Character “A” is best friends with Supporting Character “B”, think about why they are friends. What likes, dislikes and experiences do they share?
How did your characters meet? Are they childhood friends or did they meet in college? Maybe happenstance threw them together, like Riggs and Murtaugh in the first Lethal Weapon.
Consider, too, if Principle Character “A” is part of a group. You’ll need to understand his role within that group. In Ghostbusters, Venkman (Bill Murray) was the de facto leader, while Stantz and Spengler (Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis) were alternately Venkman’s sidekicks or the team’s mad scientist builders. Your Character might be a wild card, an outsider thrown into the group like Max among Pappagallo’s people in The Road Warrior; a character who is like a rock tossed into a pond, changing everything.
If your Character has a love interest, what do they see in each other and why do they want to be in a relationship? Diane Keaton, in both Annie Hall and Manhattan, played a woman who appealed to Woody Allen physically, challenged him intellectually and drew him out of himself socially. Look into both of your characters’ romantic histories and adapt them so that they resonate and build up to the relationship they share in your story. Romance is rarely logical, obviously, but there is always “something” that attracts two people to one another. Find out what draws them together.
In this exercise, you’ll find character notes and sketches for different characters overlapping. Don’t worry if you feel you need to abandon one character sketch to work on another at this point in order to get this final question right! Just as your Character needs to be “Complete,” you’ll want their relationships with fellow characters to be well-rounded and dimensional. Put the time in to get it all right; it’s the best favor you can do for yourself and your story.
Now that you’ve created a complete character, you’ll probably find them arguing with you regarding what they say and how they say it in a given scene. Listen to them. If, however, it turns out that the Character you’ve created is no longer the type of person you need to perform certain tasks within your storyline, then you have to go back and revisit the questions above. As I said above, put the time in and get it right. Since action is an expression of character, I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of getting your characters right! And remember, too, answering the above questions is not merely a process of dreaming up the “what’s” and “how’s” of your Character, but discovering most importantly the “why’s.”
Think well in advance about what sort of story you want to tell, and what that story’s tone, or feel, should be when finished. If you’re creating a simple story set in a monotone world where good guys wear white and bad guys wear black, it is important to realize that your “good guys” will only be as good as your “bad guys” are bad. Would you have cheered as loudly when the Death Star exploded if Darth Vader had reasoned with Princess Leia to turn over the information he wanted and given Alderaan stern economic sanctions? If your story is a more thoughtful exploration of a colorful world, then you can get away with a villain who also supports an animal shelter and is only a bad guy because of extenuating circumstances. The kind of story you’re telling will dictate what sort of characters populate it -- make sure they fit.
The late comedian, Marty Feldman, used to talk about what he called the “internal logic” of a comedy sketch. By this, Feldman meant that if you have a sketch where everyone is dressed as kangaroos, you can’t suddenly have a medieval knight walk out without offering some explanation, or at the very least some acknowledgement. This “internal logic” applies not only to comedic sketches but to all stories and screenplays as well. An excellent example of where the “internal logic” of a film broke down because of a misplaced/poorly constructed character is Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episodes I & II. While Jar Jar was most likely created to appeal to small children, most adults agree that Binks’ presence was like that of an incredibly annoying elephant in the living room. Make sure your characters not only fulfill their purposes in your story but suit your story’s context and tone as well. If a character doesn’t, you can still make it all work; just acknowledge the dilemma and explain it somehow. The best solution, though, is to just jettison the elephant and start from scratch.
Good luck with your work and have fun! Your screenplay is your universe. Rule it well!
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I have created a worksheet that I fill out when I’m preparing a character for one of my own scripts. It is by no means carved in stone, so feel free to adapt it at will. I’m happy to share this worksheet with you here in both Word doc and pdf file formats:
Here is a sample of a filled-out worksheet:
Character Development Worksheet
Character: Alexander Pearce [Through Hell’s Gates*]
Age: 30s Nationality: Irish
External Need: To survive the journey across Van Dieman’s Land and escape home to his family in Ireland.
Internal Need: Pearce needs to be with his family, a husband to his wife and a father to his children.
Role in Story: Pearce is the main character, and one member of the lumber gang that escaped MacQuarrie Harbor into the bush in 1823.
Occupation: Pearce has spent most of his life unemployed and struggling to make ends meet with various laborer situations back home in Ireland. In Van Dieman’s Land he was slave labor for a farmer/colonist until his incorrigible ill behavior got him sent to MacQuarrie Harbor where he became the member of a lumber gang.
What/How Does S/He Eat: Pearce will eat almost anything, as per his lifelong poverty, and eats with few social graces. Still, the man has fond memories of the yearly Christmas goose his mother managed to acquire.
How Does S/He Sleep: Pearce sleeps like a dead man, usually collapsing from exhaustion after a hard day’s work. In Van Diemen’s Land, and over the course of the story, Pearce’s sleep habits become less secure; he sleeps fitfully and lightly, as he cannot trust the others in his group.
How Does S/He Show Love: Pearce is a generous and loyal friend, and a very loving father – these are traits he learned and inherited from his own father. Pearce would do anything to provide for his family, which is what lead to his stealing six pairs of shoes, the crime for which he was transported.
What Does S/He Do While Alone: Pearce was rarely alone in Ireland, and never alone in Van Diemen’s Land. In those rre moments when Pearce does find himself alone, he whistles, humms or sings to himself and, occasionally pines for Ireland and Colleen while looking at a cameo portrait he has of her in a locket.
Where Does S/He Hope To Be In 10 Years: Home in Ireland with his wife, Coleen and their two children.
Favorite Entertainment: Pearce enjoys playing cards with friends, drinking and getting into general mischief as per his hapless, jack-the-lad nature.
Romantic History: Pearce and his wife Colleen have known each other their whole lives. They were, and always have been, the love of each other’s life. Despite their strict Catholic upbringing, Pearce and Colleen were not adverse to a little adolescent sexual experimentation and hanky-panky, but then, they always knew there was no one else in the world for either of them.
A Few Words On Their Childhood: Pearce grew up poor in a Dublin slum, the only people his family had that they could rely on were each other. A Catholic, he grew up resenting the Protestant English and the poverty he felt was impressed upon him and his kind by them.
Relationship/Dynamic w/Other Characters: Pearce is one of a few good men in MacQuarrie Harbor, and later, on the track across Van Diemen’s Land. He is friends with Dalton and Mather because they share a common sense of right and wrong, as well as general good nature. For similar reasons Pearce is friendly with both Kennedy and Brown, but also these men are older and Pearce was raised to respect old folk. Pearce is always at odds with Greenhill and Travers, the most evil men in the harbor. On the track, survival becomes a battle of wits between Pearce and Travers, each man trying to maintain a greater value in the eyes of the psychotic Greenhill. To his confessor and magistrate, the Rev. Knopwood Pearce is originally just another convict, but as this story unfolds, Knopwood sees in Pearce not only the inherent flaws of the Empire’s judicial system but also the temptation to live of the lives of other men as well.
[*Through Hell’s Gates is a script I wrote some years back with my writing partner in Australia that was optioned by an Australian production house.]