Most feature films and novels have been fictional stories about men and women facing amazing situations that seem almost impossible to overcome. These excursions into fantasy require believable characters who act in plausible ways within the given circumstances of the fictional world created by the writer. The actions, reactions, responses, and spoken words used throughout must be acceptable to the audience as those that would normally occur within the realm of human activity.
That acceptability comes through careful planning on the part of the writer thus requiring the development of characters each with a history; that is the characters must be as real to the writer as her own family, friends, acquaintances, etc. The writer must create characters with a life in progress—characters with a past. Here are some suggestions to help you as a screenwriter to hopefully create believable people to inhabit your stories.
Since most movies from Hollywood have been crafted from prior published novels, and because I believe many good stories find themselves on the screen, and since many novelists hope their novel gets selected to be made into a movie, well, I'll use some illustrations from movies to make my points below.
One of the most effective ways of creating a believable fictional character is to create that character from their birth highlighting special events that have shaped their life up to the minute just before the story you will be telling starts. A few questions that will help you get started would be the following: Did the protagonist ever meet the antagonist? What was it between them that led the antagonist to be so antagonistic toward the protagonist? What about other people in the story? How, where, why did the protagonist meet and get to know any of them? Do they meet for the first time in the story?
An excellent example of how this works can be found in the motion picture Raiders of the Lost Ark wherein the protagonist (Indiana Jones) and the antagonist (Belloch) have a rocky past wherein they have had conflicts over ownership of various archeological sites. Also, Jones had a past with the love interest (Marion Ravensbrook). They fell in love when she was barely out of her teenage years. When they meet again, she greets him with a hard right to the jaw.
Characters who mention past experiences, past loves, past hurts, past joys, past relationships, as well as parents, siblings, relatives, and friends are people with whom your audience can identify. They will seem “real” to them during the telling of the story. The way you can do this is literally writing that character’s biography. This does not have to be a blow-by-blow recounting the person’s whole life. All you need to do is create major events such as first auto accident at age seventeen, or an encounter with a bully at age nine, or a serious injury caused by a missed turn on a bicycle or skate board.
There is a serious danger in writing fictional characters; and that is the tendency to create character “types” rather than characters that walk, talk, act, and exist the way real people do. This mistake is often referred to as writing “stereotypes.” These types of characters tend to be cartoonish in nature. They do or say things because they must. But, since characters in a movie bring to the screen experiences and emotions purporting to be from real life, they must originate from an experience in the character’s background and the responses to the events in the script. In other words, the emotions portrayed by the characters in your script must be “true” to real life.
An additional danger is that Hollywood tends to love stereotypes because of the comfort factor. Stereotypes fit into pre-conceived concepts from the movies that have been popular. It appears to me that those screenwriters who truly “make it” in Hollywood have discovered the delicate balance of writing characters that are just like real people yet appear to be like the Uber-Characters of the strong movies of the past such as Indiana Jones, or Moses (The Ten Commandments), or even Elliot (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial). These characters fit the definition of an acceptable Hollywood Hero with an extraordinary creativity behind their creation in the mind of the writers and the techniques of the actors that in turn result in memorable “people” in the minds of the audience members.
The Character Biography
When creating interesting characters that will come alive for your audiences, it might be helpful to develop a character profile that lists the traits of each character. Consider running each character through this list to flesh him out so that he might become a real person in your mind and the minds of your audience. Describe the character in terms of the following ideas or behaviors. Note how many of these are listed in terms of experiences.
Remember that writing what you know might come in handy here. Use the characteristics of people you know in your own life as examples to use in your characters. Most of the characters in my scripts and novels are built on people with whom I am familiar. Although I do not describe a person specifically, I use the traits of several people to enhance a character that I have created. Note the following elements as possible examples and not as an exhaustive list.
As you think of your characters in each scene that you create, you might want to think only of what they are saying and doing, but it might be helpful first of all to keep in mind their lives up to the moment that the movie begins. Then as the scenes progress, let each event pile onto what the character has already lived through therefore creating a more complex picture with attitudes that govern their actions.
You may be asking yourself whether or not this exercise is necessary in order to create wonderful characters that movie viewers will want to watch for two hours. And the answer is a simple “no.” This is only a suggestion to help you to find the best way for you to learn to be a strong writer that readers (and film professionals) will feel comfortable reading your novels (or asking for a contract to make your novels into movies). But, if you are inexperienced in writing fiction, you might want to take a serious look at the above model then research for yourself the many other possible models that are available through the internet and for sale in bookstores everywhere. Below is a simplified sample character form you may use at your will.
Sample Character Biography
Fill in the following information about your main character:
Name: ___________________ Character Type: ______________
Age: ______ Gender: _______ Occupation: ____________
Brief Physical description (two or three sentences, maximum):
Brief Psychological description (two or three sentences):
Brief Family background and description (two or three sentences):
List up to four adjectives that describe this player:
On separate sheets, write out a narrative of this person’s life ending at the point where the movie begins. This need not be a full biography but should highlight important events that shaped the character’s life and philosophy. What happened that made him/her into the person they are at the beginning of the story? These are the events to deal with in detail. Remember that the more detail you include the more three-dimensional your characters will appear to the reader or viewer.
Herb is an author, speaker, retired college educator, and retired Army Reserve chaplain living in South Florida.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Copyright © 2017, Herbert Sennett.
You're welcome to post this article on your website or blog provided the content, including the author’s name, is not altered in any way, and that this copyright and licensing statement, complete with working links, appear with the article. Any other use is a violation of U.S. and International copyright law. For permission to use the article in other ways, please email me. Thanks.