How to Create Powerful Characters for Your Screenplay
Every cinephile has had the displeasurable experience of witnessing a character on screen which fell flat for them, with no substance, believability, or development. The powerful characterisation can propel your screenplay by hooking your audience from the opening scene as they grow to empathise with the character’s motivation or become intrigued. Focusing entirely on the plot while drafting your script and not paying enough attention to creating strong, well-defined and accurate characters is a rookie mistake. A robust character’s authentic desires and needs (as shown, not told) can act as a natural springboard for the story’s plot or conflict, as they must be corroborating in order for the screenplay to be cohesive.
Note that it is not only the protagonist who deserves a compelling characterisation; having cogent and multi-dimensional minor characters will allow your fictional world to be fully realised and engaging. If you wish to write genuine, convincing characters, there are numerous essential features to be mindful of:
1. Give Them a Captivating Introduction and Backstory!
Backstories will establish a memorable cause for the character’s motivation and legitimise their goals or flaws later in the narrative. As always, bonus points if you can show specific characteristics and backstory elements rather than telling them to the audience. Good backstories are not narrated by another character (unless it enhances the plot, like the rumour chain about Regina George in Mean Girls) but are shown, perhaps through flashbacks or montage sequences. While the character is being introduced, demonstrate some of their traits and behavioural tendencies through their interactions with other characters and decisions.
2. Make Them Realistic and Flawed!
By assigning them defining features, you can outline precisely what makes the character relatable and why the audience should grow to care for them. Constructing the character’s body language, superficial characteristics and flaws by indicating what they look like and how they move through the world will allow the audience to get more familiar with them and even root for them. Depicting their flaws adds complexity to your plot, as those weaknesses will expose their nature, steer them away from their primary goal and prevent them from conquering their principal conflict. An easy way to do this would be by modelling them after people you know in real life and fleshing out their personalities!
3. Map Out Their Character Development or Arc!
Letting your characters remain stagnant and unable to overcome their flaws to resolve the conflict would result in faulty characterisation. They deserve to realise their full potential. Even if they fall short of their goal or revert back to their flaw, particular learning or change should occur. Their development will be incomplete without clearly delineating their goals and the stakes for said goals. By defining the character’s motivation, figuring out their central conflict and determining how they will transform over the course of the film, you can fully develop their arc.
4. Give Them Riveting Dialogue and Choices!
Their dialogue must be compelling, original and exciting to retain the audience’s attention. Strong character-based dialogue can make or break the film’s suspense or sense of humour. Things to keep in mind are how their dialogue showcases where they’re from (accent), their education level (vocabulary), their personality type (tone) and more. This does not necessarily mean that your characters need to be packed with dialogue; sometimes, saying less makes what they do say more memorable. The characters need distinct dialogue, and they should not sound like the same person – well-written dialogue will drive the plot forward while confirming for the audience who they are within moments of it being uttered.
5. Create Dynamic Character Pairs!
It’s the oldest trick in the book – writing dynamic character pairs and making their personalities at odds and clashing. Shakespeare has been doing it since the 1600s, creating foils for his characters to make their characterisation stand distinctly against one another. Not only is this broadly applicable for hero/villain duos but even for interpersonal relationships between romantic interests, family members or friendships to create another layer of conflict. These result in funny yet intense confrontations and enthralling hostilities and make it more realistic for the audience. People do not develop in isolation. We are deeply affected by the actions and personalities of others, which means characters should be as well.
Allowing your characters to evolve and surprise you, and perhaps even letting them make decisions for you, will make them powerfully convincing for the audience. Do basic exercises which involve mapping the aforementioned points before you begin writing your screenplay, and you will have a brilliant foundation to go off of. Do your homework by observing and analysing how your favourite characters have been developed and model your own after them. Follow these recommendations, and your audience will be singing praises of the characters as they walk out of the theatre!