An outline for your screenplay is a great way to start, but developing strong characters will engage viewers in the story you’re telling. Would Darth Vader’s iconic “I am your father” reveal have been as impactful if you didn’t care for the characters? They’re the driving force behind any story, and making them interesting starts early in the scripting process.
You must create characters who will help drive your story forward in a natural way while providing tension for audiences. If the story centers around a bank robbery, having a character who can walk through walls might not be for the best. Instead, you need characters who are challenged by the story and find themselves in over their heads.
It’s good to think outside the box with your characters; using those who seem least likely to be involved in the story can naturally create interesting drama. Contrasting characters will have the same effect, adding another layer of tension outside of the plot. People who are similar and agreeable to one another become boring rather quickly, which can turn audiences away before giving the story a chance.
Create a Backstory
As you form general ideas about your characters and their relation to the story, it’s important to consider their backstories. Unless you’re dealing with a newborn baby, all people have life experiences that influence their behavior. How your character reacts to a situation within your screenplay could be a direct result of something in their past.
Uncharacteristic actions confuse audiences and leaves them wondering why things changed.
Because of this, it’s vital to craft a backstory for your characters, providing a road map for how certain events might affect them. Even if elements of their past aren’t shown — manifesting instead through characters’ mannerisms or verbal responses — it forms the essence of who they are. Keeping these things in mind ensures characters stay consistent in the script while providing a set of core values that define their hopes and fears.
Developing aspects of a character that won’t make it to the screen may seem like a misdirection of valuable time that could be spent elsewhere, but the results will leave you with far more relatable characters.
Every character must serve a purpose and have their own goals within the story. Needs and desires are what drive the plot, and crafting a character’s backstory helps define those needs.
Look at “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for an example. The characters are united by a singular plot point, but each have personal motivations for doing so. Indy wants to keep it out of the wrong hands, the villains want ultimate power and Marion is in search of a new life after losing her bar and livelihood.
They each have their quirks that make them unique and help drive the plot. Marion is a feisty woman who speaks her mind, while Indiana’s fear of snakes — which isn’t explained in the film, but is a key part of who he is — plays into his decisions and provides a relatable flaw to counter his heroic persona.
Figuring out your characters’ goals, wants and needs within your script will help flesh out your script with poignant moments to drive the plot forward. A primary goal for everyone will form the basis of the plot, but individualized motivations bring about interesting dynamics between characters — something that will hook audiences more into the overall story.
Showing Them Off
Once motivations and backstory are settled, you need to develop characteristics to demonstrate these ideas to audiences. How a character speaks and interacts with others, along with their mannerisms, are ways to convey their personalities.
Fidgety characters show anxiety — something that fluctuates as the situation changes. A seemingly irrational fear during an event or moment in the script can be an indicator something painful has happened in that character’s past. A person with injuries may walk differently, while a stutter can be an indication of a lifelong ailment or the result of a traumatic event. Someone who’s been bullied in the past might be quicker to prove themselves or stand up for people. Timid characters are more willing to blend into a scene, while confident characters are more boisterous and draw attention to themselves.
These details are what makes on-screen personas more relatable to audiences. Paying attention to these mannerisms in your screenplay adds dimension to your story and characters before the cameras roll, but it’s crucial to keep them consistent throughout.
Nothing pulls audiences out of a viewing experience quicker than characters making a sudden and inexplicable change in behavior. Uncharacteristic actions confuse audiences and leave them wondering why things changed instead of focusing on the plot.
This is why it’s vital to have a firm grasp on your characters in the script phase. Having their backstory in place and knowing their motivations will serve as guidelines while you write. The little details make individuals unique and will set your characters apart from one another. Making your characters feel real starts with the screenplay, where developing these ideas can make or break the final film.
Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist whose plied his talents in web content for Disney Studios as well as movie and video game websites.