Understand Your Characters
Creating a screenplay of originality and cinematic power starts with your character. For me, everything in a screenplay is based on one overriding premise which I call emotional pull. How you spell-bind an audience into an irresistible involvement with your characters and keep it entranced by that magic till the end of the film – and beyond – is to arouse, provoke, intrigue, disturb, excite, and exhilarate them.
Emotional pull is what powers the story. It’s what forces your characters to do what they do, when they do it and why. And when and why they try to resist it. It determines how you tell the story, the narrative impetus, the dramatic journey, how it moves and breathes, how it rises and falls in tension, how it climaxes, and how it ends. It pulls two ways. It exerts its power on the people of the story, and in turn, it pulls the audience into the story. The subject of Character in screenwriting is, then, huge.
Only space here for a few pointers:
Choose a movie that’s moved you. Choose a movie that hasn’t. Get the two scripts here.
- Scroll to a few pages at random with each script.
- What’s happening?
- What are you feeling as you read?
- What response from the audience do you think the writer has intended here?
- Try to identify what differences there are between the two scripts.
- How would you rate each script for drawing you into an emotional connection with the character(s)?
- Can you identify why the second movie doesn’t move you? How were you responding to the character(s)?
Talk To Characters
Put your characters on the spot, challenge them with outrageous suggestions, shout at them, get them to speak back to you with urgency and rage. This creates a wonderfully fruitful tension between you. Think of your relationship as something alive and moving and growing.
You don’t create unforgettable characters already formed. Allow them to grow organically and they’ll surprise you. As well as a list of age, birth order, appearance, childhood memories, friends, etc., ask your character:
- What’s your strongest memory?
- What makes you cry? Or don’t you?
- What makes you laugh? Who’s your favourite comedian?
- Do you giggle?
- What do you fear the most?
- Has anyone ever betrayed you? How? What do you feel about that experience now?
- Have you ever betrayed anyone? How? What do you feel about that now?
- If you could be granted one wish what would it be?
- If you could undo one thing you did in your life, what would it be?
- Do you hate anyone?
- Have you ever been in love? Are you in love now? Or have been once? Have loved and lost?
- Have/want to have children?
- Anything that keeps you awake at night?
- What do you want most in the world?
- What is preventing from that being fulfilled?
Then start thinking about your character’s emotional needs and why they are not being met.
Are they aware they have these needs at all? Even when a character does not know what they want, they can be subconsciously motivated to take certain actions to find out. Is there anyone your character knows who perceives the emotional needs although the character doesn’t? How will your audience recognise these needs when the character doesn’t? This last is to do with dramatic irony, one of the most powerful techniques of all dramatic writing. Basically it’s: What does the audience know that the character doesn’t? Dramatic irony makes for a terrific opportunities to weave tension and suspense into the character’s story.
Backstory Powers Emotional Plot
Backstory has to be mostly about the emotional past life of a character because the story being told in this story now is driven by impulses already set in motion. Don’t take the lazy way – don’t pluck a character ‘peg’ out of the air and hook it onto your character. You know the kind of thing – hard-boiled, cynical cop likes ballet.
Write some scenes from your character’s past: in the school playground, as a teenager, etc. Watch how (s)he behaves. Then to make secondary characters help define your main character (they absolutely must), write scenes as though the other characters in the story inhabit the main character’s backstory. Who’s leader? Who’s the shy one, etc.? This will deepen your characterisation immeasurably.
Pauline is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, Shakespeare scholar, and former journalist. She is also the author of one of the best guides there is to screenwriting: Screenwriting They Can’t Resist: How to Create Screenplays of Originality and Cinematic Power. Explode the Rules.