Three Essential Tips On Writing Characters
1. Put Yourself In The Actor’s Shoes
It’s essential when writing characters to remember that they’re meant to be played by real people. A real actor is (hopefully) going to come along and try to inhabit the role you’ve created. But in order to do this they want to feel excited and challenged by the character they’re playing.
An actor wants to know, What do I want in this scene? Why do I want it? How do I go about getting it? What’s stopping me? What are the consequences? An actor brings a character to life from the subtext and forces of conflict you create on the page.
A good way to put yourself in the actor’s shoes is to pick who you’d love to play each role, and then write the part with that actor in mind. This should make it much easier to write with a “voice” — something that every actor looks for in a role.
Also, when you’re describing a character’s actions in the action lines, be careful not to overwrite and describe every little thing they do. For example, we don’t need to know every time a character nods, sighs, looks up, or turns to face someone. Actors can’t stand it when every little movement and facial tic is written in for them. Leave room for them to express themselves and take the character places you may not have even thought of.
2. Put Yourself In Your Characters’ Shoes
A common fault of spec screenplays is that the characters don’t seem to act or react to events like a real person. What you need to do though is to learn how to fully inhabit the skin of each and every one of your characters. It’s only then that you’ll know how they’d behave in any given situation.
Very often a failure to do this can be the cause of many logic issues within the script. And I’m not just talking about the big turning points. Even the small things characters do need to be fully on-point and believable, otherwise the reader will rapidly lose faith in the story.
For example, if you write a scene in which a husband and wife pull into a restaurant parking lot and then the wife goes into the restaurant without her husband, immediately we’re asking why would she do this? And then when the husband gets murdered, it’s clear the writer didn’t want her around while this happened and so made her go into the restaurant alone. These are the kind of small but unnatural actions characters make that are the result of the writer not putting themselves in their creation’s shoes.
Also, learn to love each and every character you create — even the “bad” ones.This is important because in the antagonist’s eyes, they’re the protagonist of your story. The audience may hate them but they think they’re the hero.
3. Remember That Character Is Self Knowledge
Observation is a source of much characterization by screenwriters. We create characters out of bits and pieces of people we observe in real life and from other movies. But merely observing isn’t sufficient. The root of deep character exploration is self-knowledge.
Anton Chekov once said “Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me” and this is true to a certain extent because the only person we ever really know is ourselves. Everyone has human thoughts and feelings, so when you ask yourself “If I were this character what would I do?”, the honest answer is always correct.You would do the human thing.
In order to “know” yourself better, maybe try a spot of self-examination. Try meditation, reading books on human nature, the brain, the ego and free will, etc. The more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able to understand others and the more you’ll be able to transfer these insights onto your screenplay characters.
Alex Bloom founded Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood screenwriters — in 2010. They have been doing their bit to keep the vague “fluff” out of script coverage ever since.
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