“Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.”
– Leslie Gordon Barnard
For me, everything in a screenplay flows from character. It’s their journey we follow; their stories, their conflict that keeps us perched on the edge of our seats.
Characters are what make films memorable. Think of the vultures in The Jungle Book, the little boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas) in Witness, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) or Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Star Wars.
The risk of not investing time in some character development work is that you could end up with a screenplay that operates well on the level of plot and structure but lacks character depth and credibility.
You’re bringing people to life, literally, so why not create three-dimensional and unforgettable characters?
Even for secondary characters, it’s worth delving a little. It will make them more real in the end and may throw up interesting scenes/ locations/ lines of dialogue or even emotional connections that shouldn’t exist but that will complicate your characters’ lives wonderfully!
Character development initially involves exploring two aspects of each character’s life:
- Their past or biography: what has happened to them in their lives up to the point when your story begins
- The ‘here and now’: who they are at this point in time
You are looking here for anything that may have shaped the person they are now; not necessarily major events or experiences but ones that will influence her behaviour, attitudes, issues and point of view (POV). Some of these will be her backstory, ie the moments or events in her past that explain her motivation, emotional need, her strengths and her weaknesses.
Ask questions about her childhood, her relationships, her earliest/ best/ worst/ most buried memories. Don’t limit yourself to questions that seem immediately relevant to your story. Go off tangent and see what you can find.
The ‘here and now’
Now you want to see your characters as they are, warts and all; as they perceive themselves to be, how aware they are of their past, what motivates them and so on. What questions might you ask – what is her goal and is there more than one, how far would she go to achieve it, what does she need emotionally and does she know? How does she feel about herself, what are her daily routines and superstitions, what sort of relationships does she have?
Throw in questions that you would be interested in knowing about her. Depending on your story, theme and emotional centre of your story, you may ask different questions that bring the past and present together.
- If she had to be a superhero, who would she be? Why?
- What animation character does she most identify with? Why?
- What food will she never ever eat? Why?
- What’s her favourite TV programme?
- What did she dream of last?
Developing a character in this way allows you to unearth a set of inbuilt reactions, attitudes and patterns of behaviour. Let’s say your central character works for a charity organisation and that she was abandoned as a child. How she is now, as a result of what happened then, will inform her behaviour and the choices she makes in your screenplay.
You may decide that her backstory has made her tough on those who let adversity grind them down. Or that she is drawn to those who are ruthless about their own survival.
Alternatively, it may have made her (dangerously?) empathetic.
Each of those choices allow you to create an entirely different character and each of these characters will make different choices when faced with the same situation.
You will also know what needs to happen for you to make life difficult for your central character, what is important to her, how to create the world she lives in and how to blow it apart.
Of course, this is a very brief look at some of the work that goes into developing film and TV characters. In my book, Write That Script, I go into a lot more detail but also provide examples of how the theory can work along with writing exercises to help you through the process.
In the next post, I’ll look at how you bring you turn the theory into characters on screen.
(c) Lindsay J Sedgwick
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.