What you are looking for when you develop a character are experiences or memories that have shaped her. The process will often reveal traits that wouldn’t have been obvious to you when you started developing your story but you will have come up with more than you can use.
This is a good thing. It means you will not make choices from a position of strength.
How a character views the world (her Point of View/POV) is formed before your story begins, from the character details you have already unearthed. What you need to decide now is how she behaves as a result, both in company and when alone.
You also want to know how she feels, both towards herself and towards others.
You’re looking for potential complications and contradictions you can use when you’re plotting your story. For example, at a very simplistic level, you may decide that a character’s need is ‘to be heard’ but that she feels superior to those with whom she is dealing. As a result, she keeps antagonising the very people she needs to listen to her.
What type of personality does your character have? Is she pessimistic or optimistic, witty or dry, impulsive or pedantic? Once you decide, you will need to find traits through which you can reveal this personality to us because it is only by seeing how your characters behave that your readers and eventual viewers get to know them.
As for backstory…
What you choose to reveal of a character’s past will help us understand her motivation, to empathise or sympathise with her. But, not everything you create as your character’s backstory needs to be revealed.
Let’s say there is some traumatic event in a character’s past of which you need readers to be aware. Might it be more powerful if she is unable to talk coherently about what happened, if she tries to tell us and has to stop than if she can tell us exactly what happened in the past? (I’m thinking of Chinatown (screenplay by Robert Towne) as a prime example.)
Only give us as much as you need us to know for us to feel what you want us to feel as readers at that point.
Then move on.
Be creative and see where it leads
Don’t worry, the theory becomes instinctive. You don’t consciously say, “I’m not going to write a line of dialogue for this character until I know if she’s left-handed”. But, while developing her, you might think, Would it be interesting if she was left-handed?
And, more importantly, Why?
The answers you might find could include:
Because left-handed people are meant to be creative?
Because at the time she was schooled, children weren’t allowed to be left-handed and this led to all sorts of issues, psychological and physical. Could it have left scars that impact upon her behaviour now and her attitude to authority figures, to the Religious, to young people who are allowed freedoms she never had, to a squishing of her artistic abilities, to a career she hates and so on?
What if she had to wear glasses from the age of seven?
How could this have affected her?
In the past: teasing, nicknames, bullying, missing out on things she couldn’t see, self-consciousness.
In the present: what if her glasses break, if she has had laser treatment, if she never wears her glasses on a first date, if she become a workaholic because she avoided relationships or an artist because she could finally see the detail of the world at age seven and it has been a wonder ever since?
Developing characters should be fun. Of course, this is only a very brief introduction to techniques; I go into far more depth in my book Write That Script, elaborating these points and more and then taking the focus onto developing the central character, antagonist and how you populate your cast.
Once you have the right characters, you can’t imagine anyone else populating your script and telling your story. So take them with you on the bus or the Luas, ask them questions and get to know them well. Tease out where the various possible answers might lead, what the implications might be for the character, the rest of the cast and the storyline.
If you’re stuck, mine your own history and the traits you’ve observed in others. You will end up with more than you can use but nothing is wasted. Some of those notes may come in handy to kick start your imagination when you’re a little brain-stuck on another project.
(c) Lindsay J Sedgwick
Look out here for the second part of this wonderful article.
Lindsay is an award-winning screenwriter who published Ireland’s first comprehensive guide to screenwriting, Write That Script in 2018. She is the creator of the ground-breaking series series Punky, which has been recognized as the first mainstream animation series in the world in which the central character has special needs (Down’s syndrome). Two series later, it is available in over 100 countries with circa 5 million hits on YouTube.
Crossing genre, searching out the best stories to tell, Lindsay has worked in live action and animation, written for kids and adult, film and TV, games and apps and had 14 plays staged in Ireland and the UK. As well as delivering masterclasses and courses throughout Ireland for two decades, she has worked with a wide range of production companies in Ireland and the UK as screenwriter, creator and creative consultant and is currently developing a children’s series.
She has also published two novels, Dad’s Red Dress (2017) and The Angelica Touch (2018) based on screenplays. www.lindsayjsedgwick.com. She will be running an eight week course on screenwriting in the Irish Writers Centre, starting Feb 20th 2019. Details can be found here.