We had a discussion on the forums where Roy and I were asked how we plan out and write our characters.

Personally, I didn’t have a process, other than writing a character down and writing who they were in a sentence or less.

Since then I’ve learned a lot a few things by reading both pro and amateur scripts on this site. One thing is that my previous process might not have been deep enough and a bit on the lazy side.

Since the goal is to make our characters as three dimensional as we can when we write, we need to have a detailed view of who they are. So I sat down and thought up five questions that will help us through that process.

Naturally this isn’t a “be all, end all” list of questions, but if you get answers down for each of your characters you’re that much closer to where you need to be before you start writing.

1.) How old is your character and have they lived a full life?

Since age is the next detail usually included when introducing a character in a script, it makes perfect sense to make this our first question. Age isn’t enough though, it’s how they lived those few to many years that makes the difference.

Perhaps they are:

An old man who’s near the end of his life but never truly lived a day in it, having everything handed to him.

A young girl on the streets who’s barely even a teenager but has seen and done things that some of us can’t fathom, all just to stay alive.

The possibilities are endless, so try to flush as many details out as possible.

2.) What is the relationship to other characters?

It was also suggested in another post that the more characters are connected the better your story will be.

I’m not going to debate whether that’s right or wrong here, but if they are connected you, as the author, need to know.

This also helps you plan out the direction of your story before writing.

A simple “yes” or “no” isn’t enough here. Is the information of the relationship known to other characters? Does only one character know of the relation, while the other doesn’t?

Included are “brother and sister” relationships, but also includes where one character has a secret crush on another.

Try to be as creative as possible. Maybe one character was the bully to another, and it’s been twenty years or so, but the bully still feels guilty. This could lead to the bully favoring the other character in odd ways, that causes tension with other characters.

Using this question is a great step in creating drama and tension as you work through your plot.

3.) What’s the one thing they’ve always wanted?

Not only does your protagonist need a goal to make your plot work, so should your other characters. In fact having other characters’ goals be the complete opposite of your main character’s leads to great drama. (But they don’t have to. Goals can be unrelated.)

What makes your character tick? Are they a constant dreamer, hoping for that big shot at fame or to strike it rich?

Do her goals include taking others with her, or would he sell his own mother to get what he wants?

Big or small, we should be able to look at each of our characters and understand where they WANT to be going. Then it’s our job as authors to allow or deny them that privilege.

4.) How will your characters react when facing an ethical dilemma?

Here’s an example.

Someone’s being mugged on a bad street. No one’s around, other than your character who just happens to drive by. Does she stop?

This can be MUCH more than a “yes” or “no” answer too. How do they enact the decision?

Perhaps your character CHARGES in saving the day.

Maybe he wants to help, but casually continues on his way, arguing he’d just make things worse.

Even what some of us would consider the callous or cowardly approach happens and she just ignores it.

This should all play a part. Then you get to drive deeper in this question. Your character wants to help, so does she just rush in, or does he take a step back and think through the situation for the best answer?

Does she instantly take all elements into account in the blink of an eye, or does he rush in arms waving and eyes closed?

5.) What are your characters’ political views?

With all the political excitement from last week and this week, I figured this would be another good question.

Is your character Democrat, Republican, Independent or some new and exaggerated future or past version of that? Maybe something completely new where a faction in your story is all about cheese and promoting it.

Maybe they don’t even have an opinion, or maybe they lean a certain way but don’t get too involved.

Is she boisterous about it, trying to convince every other character to except her ideas, or is he more mellow and accepts people regardless of whether others agree with him.

Answering this question will most certainly lead to drama, and feel free to substitute religion in there for politics. There’s a reason most people don’t discuss these things in public or at large family functions, since it almost always downgrades into name calling and/or fist fights.

Bad for Uncle Ted’s family reunion, but GREAT for your script.

In closing…

The goal of answering these questions isn’t to give you LOTS of exposition for your script, but for you to better understand your characters so you’ll write their personalities into the story. Doing so will benefit your story, which in turn benefits the audience.

Since a lot of our readers (not to mention Roy and myself) have trouble with dialogue, this will be a good supplement to that too.

For instance, when answering question 1:

I have a twenty something female character in a supernatural horror script, call her Karen. The group is doing what every group does in a horror script and decides to split up.

Karen’s freaking out because the person she’s paired up with is Jeremy, a guy she doesn’t know. What I know about Karen is that she was raped by a stranger as a teenager, leaving her with deep emotional issues just like most of us would have. She’s more terrified of being left with Jeremy than she is of the monster, because to her an unknown man hurting her is the greater threat.

Will I have her go into a long speech to explain that? No, but I will flush out in short, panicked dialogue that she wants to go with one of the other girls. Do I have her discuss this later, developing a bond between Karen and the girl she’s with? It depends on my story.

Hopefully the new situation not only made Karen’s character more robust, but I also have two females characters together, which is slightly unusual letting me play with the audience’s preconceived stereotypes for this situation.

If you’re having trouble answering all of these questions, or don’t feel like doing it for one of your characters, that might be a good point to ask, “Do I need this character?”

As amateurs, we use very minor characters to fill a short role, where it might benefit the story to use a more established supporting character. However, it’s up to you to do what’s best for your story.

Lastly, don’t feel like this should be set in stone. It’s a natural starting point, and should be fun. If you’re midway through your story and a character should zig rather than zag, make that change. Just make sure the new zag is consistent with the actions and dialogue in the rest of the script.

Since this could easily be an evolving list, what are some suggestions for other questions? Feel free to leave your question(s) in the comments below, as I’m the first to admit I don’t think of everything.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Agree with most what you said, but as a non US citizen I would like to know why is the political view important. And I’m not talking about political movies.

    • Jovan,

      It’s not really important or even necessary. The goal of all of these questions is to develop a better understanding of your characters and bring them more to life. You could just as easily say, “What’s their religion? How devoted to it are they?” There’s no right or wrong answer, but if you have a Christian character and a Muslim character there’s a chance for some friction, espcially in how they talk and interact with one another. Same with an outspoken Democrat and vocal Republican, Lberal vs. conservative, etc.

      If you want to skip this question that’s absolutely fine, as I said these are just suggestions, not required in any way.

      Remember, we want to give our characters a backstory so we better understand how they’ll react to the world we create in our story.

  2. In one of his posts at Cockeyed Caravan, Matt Bird does similar things, except one of the questions he was thinking about was “What are the rules the character lives by?”

    Frex: “I will never do unprovoked violence to a stranger”.

    And then find ways to test that rule…

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here