How to Develop Characters in a Screenplay
Think about Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway. We know he’s a busy, driven executive at FedEx from the start because he’s doing things a busy, driven executive does. The real character development doesn’t start until he’s on the island.
From not being able to open a coconut to spearing a fish at 30 yards, making life and death decisions, being resigned to his fate before being saved by ocean garbage, Chuck Noland grows, adapts, and thrives with little to no dialogue. It’s a fantastic look at how to develop a character via his actions.
But maybe the protagonist for your film isn’t stuck on an island for four years. No matter if they’re a starting quarterback for the high school football team, the first female President of the United States, or a superspy, your characters need to be more than their “job.” Here are a few ways to add depth to your characters and help flesh them out to real, living, people.
5 Tips on How to Write a Character for a Movie
1. Voice Patterns
Seinfeld may have had a low talker, a high talker, and a close talker, but what your character says is just as important as how they say it. Will your character have a favorite catchphrase or be quick with a quip? Maybe they swear like a drunken sailor (or they chastise those who do). Or perhaps they stutter, have a lisp, or can’t roll their r’s.
In many cases, screenwriters write like themselves. Some call this the Aaron Sorkin effect or the Kevin Smith effect. But no matter what effect you use, consider giving your main characters their own voices. Playing distinctive traits off of one another makes for more engaging, engrossing conversations.
2. Fatal Flaw
As they say, nobody’s perfect. Even Captain America operated outside of the law when he ended up on the wrong side of the Sokovia Accords. While your main character doesn’t need to have the world’s governments clamoring for their head, they should have some kind of negative attribute that can put them at odds with themselves.
This is character building 101: Giving your protagonist two positive traits and one flaw. A telemarketer with a speech impediment, a leader of industry who never feels pride, a world-class musician with one arm. These obstacles help your characters become the people they are.
3. Small Weaknesses
These are the daily quirks that give your characters even more depth. Do they brush their teeth for exactly three minutes? Are their “guilty pleasures” ice cream, reality TV, or playing Candy Crush? Are they constantly noticing their receding hairline or counting every new grey hair that makes an appearance?
These are the kinds of weaknesses the audience deals with every day, too. These acts might bring a wry smile, a head nod, or even a fleeting wisp of embarrassment to those watching your film. It not only makes your characters human, but it also makes them relatable as well.
4. Describe Their Environment
If a picture paints a thousand words, what does a pile of dirty clothes say? You can tell a lot about a character after spending five seconds looking at their bedroom. Think about it: When you go to someone’s home for the first time, you’ve already started making little mental notes about the people who live there based on their art, knick-knacks, or if they’ve sequestered one corner of the living room for a kids play area.
The audience will do the same when seeing how your character lives. Whether it’s the bedroom, bathroom, or even if they leave a pack of smokes on the dashboard of their car or have one of those little dancing hula girls. And those mental notes the audience makes will differ from person to person since different things speak differently to each of us.
5. The Company They Keep
Unless their best friend is a volleyball, your main character will probably be surrounded by friends, family, and coworkers. And while they can’t pick their family members or who they work with, they can choose who to go get a drink with. Those choices will give added dimensions to your protagonist.
Is it someone they’ve known since grade school or a sorority sister? Maybe a sponsor from a recovery program or someone they met on a vacation. And, yes, even someone from the office if it makes sense. How your character changes their tone with these supporting characters will go a long way to forming depth in their relationships.
Well-Developed Characters Lead to Well-Rounded Movies
Whether it’s an underdog movie, a story of redemption, or an unlikely hero, you have to give your audiences main characters they care about. When the protagonist is in trouble, or making a life-changing decision, or reaching the finish line, you want the audience to be able to cheer right along with them.
It takes time and a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. But giving your characters depth— flaws and all—will keep audiences interested. And the more you know about your main characters, the more you’ll know how they’ll react to certain situations believably.
Are you interested in learning what it takes to write an effective script and develop characters for your film or screenplay? Film Production is an exciting career path and the Film Connection Film Institute’s approach to screenwriting pairs one screenwriting student extern (you) with one experienced filmmaker who knows the ins and outs of writing the kinds of scripts that get made.