Writing characters is a varied art form and there’s a million ways to develop characters that are “great” “dimensional,” “original.” Here’s a trick I like to use:
Who is this character, really?
How do they present themselves to the world?
These are also good questions for life. If you want to know how someone wants to be seen, look at their instagram. If you want to know who someone is, share an inheritance with them.
This trick allows you to use two simple judgements to create a character that seems more complex.
Terminator 2 – Sarah Connor wants to be a tough, merciless warrior. At heart she’s a traumatized survivor and a good mom.
Die Hard – John McClane wants to be seen as a good husband. At heart he’s a warrior who tends to put action over family (this works out well for the story he’s in).
Zootopia: Judy Hopps wants to be seen as a progressive, enlightened person who busts old stereotypes. At heart she’s as much a slave to to stereotypes of her culture as anyone (she gets better).
The Office: Michael Scott pretends like everybody loves him and that his coworkers are his family, but he is actually pretty lonely. He thinks he is hilarious, but nobody laughs at his jokes. (credit to Moebius23)
Other examples: A coward who dreams of being a heroic gunslinger. A sucker who thinks they’re on the verge of cracking a conspiracy. A sexual addict who thinks they’re pure and virtuous.
Creating a simple dynamic like this allows you to create a character that’s both contradictory and consistent, and it also hints at a profound character want.
To deploy this in a story: whenever a character has time to think, let them do something consistent with the self image they’re selling. Whenever they’re pressured, tired, or think they can get away with it, let them be their true self.
Movie characters tend to be archetypes. The hero, the love interest, the villain. That’s not a bad thing, it’s baked into storytelling, and it allows for a narrative clarity that allows a varied audience to relate to a specific story.
The trick is to hide this with artifice. Despite the fact that everyone basically responds to archetypes, people also like to fancy themselves as discerning and smart, so if you’re too on the nose, you’ll get dinged for it by readers, by contest judges, by the talent you want to attract to your projects.
I hate generic stuff, momentsthat show something basic: the kid loves his mom! The cop works at a precinct! The couple is fighting! Any hack could write that, and it’s the screenplay’s job to show off what’s special about your writing style. You want to sell people on the idea of you.
Here’s a very generic scene:
INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT A HUSBAND and WIFE are fighting.
HUSBAND: You’re driving me crazy! WIFE: You’re driving me crazy! HUSBAND: You’re crazy! WIFE: You’re crazy!
Okay, I get it. Their marriage sucks, but I don’t know anything about the characters. It’s just a bland fight. When I read scenes like this, I’m reminded of something an improv teacher once taught me: scenes should speak to a specific complaint.
That’s a fancy way of saying that dialogue should specifically highlight WHY things are happening. If someone says “I love you,” do they say it everyday or does they want something today? If a husband and wife are fighting, who’s fault is it?
The characters become more clear if a scene becomes more specific:
HUSBAND: You’ve been snapping at me all day, and I’m sick of it! WIFE: Get a fucking job! I’m sick of carrying you. I should have married John. HUSBAND: Fuck John. Let him deal with your shit. I’m sick of you hitting on any guy with a six pack! WIFE: You’re one to talk! You’d fuck mud if you thought it would wiggle!
This is a little on the nose, but at least we know a little more about the two lovebirds. If we wanted to further refine it, we’d have to think about what we’re trying to say about these people and the best way to manifest that broader truth in a few specific lines.
By making dialogue more specific, you get to show off your chops and you make your characters more distinct.
A world-building script is a script that is heavily reliant on its setting. These are commonly genre scripts, but not always. A script that’s got an esoteric historical setting or relies on a densely woven political backstory has the same strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
There’s nothing wrong with world building scripts, indeed many great stories have richly imagined worlds. Unfortunately, when beginners write world building scripts they often over-focus on world building at the expense of telling a story.
Here’s an example of a world building detail from our own universe:
The Rohingya people are a minority in Myanmar. They face extreme oppression from the government.
This is factual, true, but uncompelling. It’s sad, but there’s a lot of sad stuff in the world, and people have limited bandwidth for macro level detail, even in their own lives. That’s the power of story, finding the unique, human connection that makes use of larger bodies of information.
Here’s a hypothetical: imagine you’re in an airport, waiting for your flight. You see a little girl, plainly alone and frightened, standing by herself. She sees you, and instinctively runs over to you for help and comfort. You stand there awkwardly for a moment as she hugs you tightly, tears streaming down her face.
You go to talk to the airline people and shortly a pair of foreign aid workers come over. They thank you, show the right credentials, and explain that she’s a Rohingya orphan on her way to a foster family in Nebraska. As the little girl is carried off, she tells you “thank you” in badly accented English.
I’d wager you’d remember that little girl for the rest of your life.
Stalin said that when a person dies, it’s a tragedy, when a million die it’s a statistic. Like most of Stalin’s quotes, it’s incredibly cynical, but contains a germ of narrative truth. It’s weird that it’s easier to connect to one hypothetical little girl (who’s fortunate in the grand scheme of things) than it is to connect to the plight of suffering thousands. It’s weird, but that’s the way it is.
Hence, when you’re writing a story, be it a mundane one or one with fantastical world building, it’s important to keep things focused on the characters. Worlds are thinky and often daunting. Characters connect us to narrative.
I once asked people to name some characters who couldn’t easily fit into archetypal categories.The answers surprised me.
Randal Floyd – Dazed and Confused
Jackie Brown – Jackie Brown
Max Fischer – Rushmore.
Commodus – Gladiator
Kirk Lazarus – Tropic Thunder
Mark Zuckerberg – The Social Network
King Schultz – Django Unchained
Freddie Quell – The Master
Don Logan – Sexy Beast
The Entire Cast of American Beauty
The problem with this is that all these characters are archetypes. They’re specifically customized, tweaked and rendered, but all have strong Jungian prototypes and their subversions and specificity works because it plays along with or counter to the archetype.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these are good characters, but they’re also archetypal characters. One could even argue they’re good because they’re archetypes. Each writer put their own stamp on them, and it’s the specific detailing that makes them good. Almost every character is based on some kind of archetype. They become complex and specific in the details.
I think beginning screenwriters often have the attitude of “formula = bad” and therefore anything good must be completely original. I wholeheartedly disagree. By learning about archetypes, you can see the underlying structure and grammar behind great characters and add greater power, meaning and specificity to your own.
Randal Floyd – A ne’er do well neighborhood Lothario. He’s that kid you knew who knew way too much about sex all grown up. There’s one in every town.
Jackie Brown – A hustler who has to pull off one last scam to leave the life. And that’s not counting all the blaxploitation tropes that this movie embraces.
Max Fischer – An outsider nerd who wants the girl. Sure, we’d never seen this kind of type-a nerd specifically wanting his teacher before, but that’s a specific choice within archetype not a subversion of it. The subversion would have been if she totally fell for him.
Commodus – A sneering, incestuous tyrannical emperor. We’ve seen his archetype everywhere from Draco Malfoy to Joffrey Baratheon. He’s also a rip on Caligua and all the other period Roman movies that predate Gladiator.
Kirk Lazarus – A method actor out of his element? Never seen that before.
Freddie Quell: A lost soul who can’t get his shit together and needs to constantly move on? See Five Easy Pieces, You Can Count on Me, and any indie movie where the hero leaves town with all his possessions in a backpack with no clear idea of where to go.
Mark Zuckerberg – A lonely, solitary genius who’s great with numbers but who can’t connect with human emotions? Don’t hurt yourself, Sorkin.
King Schultz – Okay, whoever said this one has a point. Still, he’s a white teacher who helps a black student reach his potential. Still, he’s a funny foreigner who’s very functionally similar to other flamboyant warriors who hide their lethality behind the affect of a dandy, like Doc Holiday in Tombstone, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Shane.
Don Logan – An organized crime psycho who’s the harbinger of bad things to come. Sure, it’s a specific version of that, but the subversion would be making him the romantic lead. Even then, he’s still an archetype.
The entire cast of American Beauty: The uptight Stepford Wife, the angry white man in open rebellion, the artsy daughter, the sexy Holden Caulfied weirdo, and the tough drill sergeant dad who’s secretly closeted. How could anyone think of characters like those?
Some old screenwriting advice: give characters distinct voices. You should be able to read a line without dialogue attribution and know who said it.
Practical example: If I made a list of great George lines, Jerry lines, Elaine lines and Kramer lines, you could probably tell whose was whose. You could tell even if you hadn’t see the episode they were from.
The modern spin on this advice: use your screenwriting software’s character report to generate an entire list of all their dialogue, out of context (this is one of the only things that Final Draft does pretty well). You’ll probably see a couple great lines, but a bunch of disposable ones:
“I could really use use the money.” “Do you know the way out?” “Sharon, she’s my wife.” “Um…yes. I–”
Every character is going to have a few of these, but if most of your character’s dialogue is that bland, odds are you have a bland character. Theoretically, all characters have traits. These traits are best expressed through dialogue.
A THUG “Fuck you, pay me.” “If you know the way out, tell me now.” “Sharon. My fucking wife.” “Hell yeah. I dunno.”
A ROCK STAR “I’m not saying it’s about the money, but it’s about the money, mate.” “If you know the way out, I will totally hook you up.” “Sharon… you know, my current wife.” “Maaaaan….”
A CREEP “Pay me. My body yearns for it.” “If you know of an exit, well, I’d use it for my purposes.” “My wife Sharon. Can’t masturbate forever.” “Ooooh.”
Obviously, not every line needs to turn into a Whose Line bit, some lines are better plain. But if you never color your dialogue, your characters never get colorful. How many times have you read a script where TIM (22) is introduced as cocky and funny, and yet he talks exactly like SCOTT (23) nerdy, all business? Don’t do that.
TL/DR: Find what works about a character and find ways to do more of it. This is a form of patternizing (to make conform to, reduce to, or arrange in a pattern).
“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
I read this quote when I was a teenager, and I never really got it. I’m not advocating for characters that are obvious stand-ins for their authors, but it’s very difficult to write a spec screenplay of any competency that isn’t at least a little psychologically revealing.
“Writing is refined thinking.” – Stephen King, On Writing.
This is a quote I do believe. If writing is refined thinking, screenplays are like exquisitely engineered dreams, where life makes sense, everyone is beautiful, and even the biggest loser has a chance to be a hero.
“The dream is a series of images, which are apparently contradictory and nonsensical, but arise in reality from psychologic material which yields a clear meaning.” Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious
Carl Jung was a genius, pioneer, and a devastating ladies man, but no one ever accused him of simplifying complicated tasks with glib solutions. Still, I think his theories on dreams (or what little I understand of his theories) are useful to screenwriting, this is the guy who inspired THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, after all.
I had a dream last night. I was at my old high school, my mom was there, as was Wayne Gretzky, Harry Truman, and the mint green ’79 Corvette I so wanted when I was a kid. Everyone was talking so loud and so fast, and there were papers flying everywhere.
My opinion on dreams is much more straightforward than Carl Jung (that’s also why he’s a scholar for the ages, and I’m selling $40 dollar notes on a WordPress blog). Though I had the dream, Wayne Gretzky wasn’t there, my high school wasn’t there, and Harry Truman wasn’t there, my school wasn’t there, and my mom wasn’t there (I asked her – she was dreaming about Israel in the 60’s that night). They were all symbols of myself. The dream came from my subconscious and everything that arose there was a different facet of myself, given the illusion of independent agency for the sake of narrative. Which brings us to screenplays.
Dreams come from the same subconscious that screenplays do. You are the writer, the characters come from you, your mind creates the very protons and neutrons of their existence. You can’t authentically write about things you don’t know about. If you have to write about, say, the experiences of a spaceman from Atlantis, all you can do is give it your best guess. Your settings, your characters, your twists, all come from you, they are externalizations of your very subconscious and can be imbued with whatever values you want them to have.
So what does this mean in practical terms for a writer?
People often ask how they can create interesting characters, how they can ensure that their characters sound different, etc. If we hold that all characters are extensions of the self, you can differentiate them (individuate, as old Jung would say) by going further into the skid.
Don’t write characters like this: HERO (good, charming), LOVE INTEREST (smart, hot), SIDEKICK (sarcastic, cowardly), VILLAIN (evil, smarmy). Rather, connect them to yourself.
HERO: Me as I see myself, but with all my flaws. He’s brainy and friendly, but on some level he just doesn’t get people. He’s sad because he wants to make friends, but wants to hold himself above everyone. In the course of the story, he’ll learn to overcome this, helped by…
LOVE INTEREST: My female side. Tying her to me, she’s smart and self taught, but values success and money over more wholesome goals. Still, she’s imaginative and ironic enough to find her own points ridiculous, and she sees something in the hero, allowing them to clash, mesh and change.
SIDEKICK: Me as I fear I am. Neurotic, off-putting, a cliche nerd who talks tough because he suffered so much rejection in high school. In the course of the story he learns to accept himself and ironically grows to be heroic thanks to the influence of the hero.
THE VILLAIN: Me as I wish I could be, on my darkest day, when bullies steal my girl, liars prosper, and my car breaks down. He’s thought of ever clever crime, every mean thing to say, every psychotic flourish, except he actually does them. Bold, ruthless and terrifying, he must be put down. The hero defeats him with the help of love interest and sidekick, thereby reaffirming my own life choices, my good side wins over my bad.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” — Carl Jung
Spinning parts of yourself off into your characters isn’t a magic bullet (nothing is), but it’s a good start, and it’ll build your investment in the world of the story and amplify your own self knowledge (important for writing and so many other parts of life). So when you’re stuck for ways to make your characters sing, remember that everything in a dream is a part of you. When it comes to your screenplay, look deep into yourself, take a fearless moral inventory, and dream big.
I love starting a new project notebook for a new project. I like to make entries for all the characters: protagonist, antagonist, love interest, side kick, etc. And then I do my favorite step of all: I find pictures of the stars I want to play my characters. Like all choices in screenwriting, this approach has its proponents and detractors. These reasons are why I like it, with a few reservations.
Casting keeps things realistic.
Your protagonist should be based on an actual star. You can write a part for a young Dustin Hoffman, but barring a time machine, you’re not getting him. Instead, consider movie stars who have successfully carried actual in the genre you’re writing in the last year, then tell your story using them. This keeps your script in the realm of the plausible, your spec probably won’t get made, but keeping it castable will save it from setting off the bullshit detectors of cynical, savvy script analysts.
For extra credit, look at the kinds of movies and the kinds of budgets your ideal star works in, and then look at how they’ve been doing. If Ryan Gosling has ten flops in a row, his cachet as an inspiration may diminish. If William Hung suddenly becomes the hottest box office star in China, he may be worth considering. Examining movies from this angle gives you a hint of what life is like for studio execs, who have to play this fame vs. cost game of fantasy football every day.
Don’t cite your casting inspiration in your actual script.
Your casting is for you too understand your own material, not to use as a shorthand for others to see your world. You don’t want to lose out on opportunities because you call your black cowboy a “Will Smith-type,” only to inadvertently offend Jamie Foxx.
“Casting” frees your imagination for other tasks.
Contrary to what Albert Einstein may have said, imagination is finite. You only have so many cerebral resources to devote to the task at hand. It’s tough to render a fully realized character in your head, to truly envision their face and manner. It becomes even tougher when you juggle this image alongside all the action, dialogue, choreography and scene description that you’re going to have to keep track of while you’re writing your scene.
If you cast bad guys 1, 2, and 3 as Vinnie Jones, Ray Park, and Jet Li, tack up their pictures to your board. Externalizing the visualization will free up your mental resources to work on other details, like plot, arc, tone, and setting (though so long as your finding pictures, you could also grab one of your dream setting).
Casting locks you into specificity.
Many writers like to keep things open. Rather than making a strong choice which might be wrong, they keep things vague. Rather than say the bad guy is a tall Chinese woman or a short black man, they’ll keep it open, like a variable in a computer program. The urge to keep things loose is understandable, but ultimately the variables overwhelm the fabric of the script. It’s better to make a strong choice, be wrong, and then make another strong choice than it is to avoid making the decisions. Writing is about making tough choices. Choosing option A over option B. You’re writing a script, not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. When you cast your secret agent protagonist as Tom Cruise, you are definitively stating that he is a Tom Cruise type, not a Brad Pitt type. You can always change your mind. A wrong decision will teach you more than being afraid to make one at all.
Casting helps dialogue.
A client had trouble writing a scene between a father and daughter. I pitched Tracy Morgan and Joy Bryant, and suddenly the scene began writing itself. Ultimately she went with Gabrielle Union and Denzel Washington, and that was funny in a completely different way. “Casting” gave her permission to explore different kinds of lines for her characters.
Sometimes competence is just a matter of knowing the right protips that will help in certain situations. Casting is not a magic bullet and it might not be for you, but it’s worth keeping in your toolbox for the times when it can get you unstuck.