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Article: Screenwriting Guide 3: Character Development

Screenwriting Guide Character Development - Image of Contemplative Person

Screenwriting Guide 3: Character Development


6 Elements to Help You Develop Your Protagonist’s Character Arc

What Motivates Your Character’s Actions?

How to Create Your Main Character’s Backstory

6 Components of Ensuring a Strong Goal for Your Main Character

6 Steps to Create a Key Relationship for Your Protagonist

3 Steps to Create Supporting Characters in Your Screenplay

6 Elements to Help You Develop Your Protagonist’s Character Arc

The character arc is the degree of emotional transformation the protagonist undergoes as a result of the events, conflicts, problems, and crises he is forced to face as the story progresses. The hero’s value system, opinions, feelings, and overall worldview may shift based on the character arc. Some main characters may change significantly, while others barely at all.

Type 1: The Clearly Defined Character Transformation
These protagonists react to the external elements. The conflicts, crises or problems force the hero to change and adapt to new circumstances and responsibilities. When the last scene fades, the audience has a clear understanding of how the protagonist has transformed and can usually predict what his or her life will be like after “Fade Out”. The majority of produced screenplays present a hero with a clearly defined character arc. 

Type 2: The Work-in-Progress Character Transformation
These protagonists act independently of the external elements. Regardless of what the specific conflicts, crises, and problems are, the hero is forever evolving. Whatever scenario the screenwriter chooses to “drop” the hero into does not matter, this character remains in constant flux – with each step he is forced to reconcile newly revealed facets of his personality or confront ongoing inner demons. Often, the viewer is unable to predict what action the hero will take. At the end of the film, the audience may be left guessing what the future holds for the hero. These protagonists are often the most compelling, engaging, and memorable.

Type 3: The Minimal or Nonexistent Character Transformation
These protagonists are not affected by the external elements. The hero can withstand whatever crisis, conflict, or problem is thrown at him. His worldview is not phased by the external elements. At the end of the film he is basically the same guy or gal he or she was at the beginning. Many action-adventure films embrace the minimal or nonexistent character arc, which easily allow for sequels.

6 Elements to Help You Develop Your Protagonist’s Character Arc Effectively:

  1. Know where your hero is emotionally when the story begins.
  1. Know what the protagonist wants most at the start of the story.
  1. Know if the hero’s goal will remain consistent throughout the story or if it will change.
  1. Know if the hero will achieve his goal – will it be more, less, nothing, or something else.
  1. Know how much, or how little, your character will evolve from his experiences.
  1. Determine what plot points can best be used to show the progression (or retraction) of the hero’s transformation.

What Motivates Your Character’s Actions?

In real life, people act with a reason. And screenplay characters need to do the same. Every character action requires motivation and intention. To create a logical story with strong, identifiable, and understandable characters, a writer needs to be aware of what drives his or her character’s actions, and create behavior that is consistent with the characters he or she has developed.

So, what motivates your characters to do, say, react, and think as they do?

1. Previous Incidents or Backstory
Past events can influence a character’s actions. In Aliens, the character of Ripley distrusts the “synthetic person”, Bishop, because she previously had a bad experience with a robot (a really bad experience). Ripley’s driven to protect the young child Newt, because she lost the opportunity to mother her own child. How do past incidents or backstory influence your character’s behavior and choices?

2. The Unconscious Dark Side
No one is “all good” or always does the “right thing”. The unconscious dark side of a character can drive him to act in ways that go against his conscious self, whether it be as small as a little white-lie to avoid hurting a loved one’s feelings or as significant as bilking clients out of millions of dollars. What makes the police officer, devoted to justice and helping the vulnerable, take a bribe or look the other way at corruption within his department? The law-abiding, good, decent, and loving father in the film In the Bedroom is driven to kill his son’s murderer in an attempt to alleviate his wife’s suffering. What would make your character lie, cheat, steal, or even kill?

3. How a Character Gains and Processes Information
People experience life differently. Some gain information through direct experience, while some derive information through others’ experiences (note that, in films, your main characters will most often experience life directly). Some people process information emotionally and base their decisions on feelings, while others process information intellectually and base their decisions on principles and facts. How does your character gain and process information and how does that affect his actions?

4. Personality Disorders or Quirks
In Lethal Weapon, Martin Riggs’s depression influences his actions – including his willingness to take chances and his flirtations with suicide – and causes conflict with other characters, such as his partner, Murdoch, who questions Riggs’s sanity (Riggs’s depression is a personality disorder triggered by a past event – his wife’s death). What personality disorders or quirks would explain your characters’ behaviors and choices?

Knowing what drives and motivates your characters’ actions will help you create fully-developed, plausible characters, and a solid, logical storyline.

How to Create Your Main Character’s Backstory

Your main character’s backstory is comprised of those incidents that define his or her current situation, thoughts, feelings, and motives and occurred before the first page of the script. Your protagonist’s backstory will inform his or her actions.

Backstory is not necessarily told in the pages of the screenplay. A good writer often embeds aspects of the backstory throughout the script and reveals them as the story progresses, never having to explicitly inform the reader or viewer of the character’s backstory through exposition. 

Though readers and moviegoers may never know the complete details of your character’s backstory, you, as the writer, must know them intimately in order to effectively create the world of your character, the choices he will make, and the journey he will take.

To create your protagonist’s backstory:

1. Define the major incidents from his past that affect who he is, where he is, and what he is doing at the beginning of the story.

2. Determine what aspects, if any, of the backstory need to be presented in the screenplay and how they will be revealed to readers.

Though not necessary, some screenwriters choose to prepare a detailed biography of their main character, tracing their protagonist’s life from birth to the time the story begins, or outline a “Day in the Life” of the hero.

Having a full understanding of your character, before writing him or her onto the script page, helps create a more complex protagonist whose actions ring true.

6 Components of Ensuring a Strong Goal for Your Main Character

Screenplays in which the main character lacks a clear, understandable, and compelling goal that drives the conflict, forces transformation, and pushes the hero toward the climax – can lead to a story that wanders and an audience or reader who quickly becomes bored or confused. The main character needs to have an objective to pursue.

Components of a Strong Goal:

1. A Strong Goal is Driven By Clear and Focused Motivation
The protagonist must be motivated to act to achieve a goal. This motivation can be psychological, physical, or situational, but the audience must clearly understand the motivation. If a reader wonders, “Why is he doing that?” then the character’s motivation has not been established. Frequently, the motivating factor is defined in the inciting incident, when the protagonist is at a crisis point and his entire world is about to change. Something happens that compels the hero to develop a goal and a plan to achieve it.

2. A Strong Goal Is Clearly Presented and Easy to Understand
The audience needs to know early in the story (some time in the First Act) what the protagonist’s goal is so they can follow him on his journey. Something may happen later in the story (often around the MidPoint) that forces him to change his goal to what he truly wants or needs.

3. A Strong Goal Is Compelling
Something must be at stake in the story that is essential to the protagonist’s well being. The audience must be convinced that if the protagonist does not achieve his goal something will be lost (the girl, life on Earth, justice, redemption…)

4. A Strong Goal Requires Action to Achieve
The main character must have a plan and take specific actions to achieve his goal. If he or she doesn’t take action then the audience won’t believe the goal is important to the character and will lose interest. By the MidPoint (at the latest) the hero needs to be acting on the story, instead of his “world” acting on him.

5. A Strong Goal Brings the Hero into Conflict with the Antagonist
The protagonist’s goals are in direct opposition to the antagonist’s, which creates conflict. A worthy opponent strengthens the hero.

6. A Strong Goal Is Difficult to Achieve, Forcing the Protagonist to Change
As the character acts to achieve his goal he will face increasingly difficult obstacles, conflicts, and complications that demand the character to confront and overcome his fatal flaw. The goal cannot be achieved without the hero changing or transforming in some way.

YOUR TURN: What is your main character’s initial goal and does it change later in the story? What is the motivation that compels your protagonist to develop a goal? Are the stakes high enough to sustain the goal throughout the story? What actions does the hero take to achieve the goal? What fatal flaw prevents him from reaching his goal and how is he forced to confront and overcome that obstacle?

6 Steps to Create a Key Relationship for Your Protagonist

Every protagonist needs a meaningful relationship the audience can relate to, one in which he or she affects another and is affected. Movie-goers live vicariously through the characters on screen - finding elements in the character’s life that resonate with them.

The hero’s pursuit of his goal must have an affect on another character, or it has no purpose and won’t affect the audience. Relationships add depth to the story, create stakes, conflict and consequences, and help us care about the hero. The power of a story is felt through the emotional reactions and connections of the characters.

An essential element to keep the reader engaged and rooting for the characters is to demonstrate that the relationship is meaningful to the hero. To achieve this, the central conflict should affect the relationship. The obstacles the protagonist faces must challenge and test the relationship.

If you are struggling with creating and developing a key relationship for the main character, follow these 6 steps:

Step 1: Review your script and make a list of the characters your protagonist interacts with.

Step 2: Determine how much each character affects the plot.

Step 3: Outline what each character has to offer the protagonist that adds value to the story.

Step 4: Based on the information you have gathered, select one character who has the possibility of creating the highest stakes through his or her connection with the protagonist.

Step 5: Define the relationship between that character and the hero.

Step 6: Expand that character’s story, intertwining it with the main character’s, and ensure the conflict from the dramatic premise eventually tests or threatens the relationship.

3 Steps to Create Supporting Characters in Your Screenplay

Supporting characters “support” the story, plot, theme, and most importantly, the protagonist – either with achieving his or her goal or obstructing the hero along his path.

Here are three steps to help you create effective supporting characters:

Step 1: Clarify Function

You can determine which supporting characters are needed and create ways they will serve the narrative through-line (the things they will “do” in the story) once you have a clear understanding of their function and purpose. The supporting character’s function may be to:

Move the Story Forward
For example: In The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) needs a dead-people-seeing kid (Cole, played by Haley Joel Osment) to move him toward discovery and redemption. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) needs supporting character Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to help him get Back to the Future.

Define the Protagonist
For example: In Liar, Liar, the supporting character Max (Justin Cooper) helps define Jim Carrey’s character (attorney Fletcher Reede) as a self-absorbed, dishonest man, and a negligent parent – and the ongoing interaction between the two characters helps reveal the hero’s subsequent transformation.

Convey Theme
For example: The character of Newt in Aliens is used effectively to expand upon the theme of “motherhood” woven throughout the story. 

Step 2: Create Contrasts

Contrasting the main character’s and supporting characters’ feelings, attitudes, lifestyle, opinions, and choices helps create conflict and complications, adds texture, and allows alternate points of view to be explored. For example: In Star Wars, supporting character Han Solo (a daring, reckless, world-weary, “I don’t care about anyone but me” smuggler), contrasts sharply with protagonist, Luke Skywalker (a straight-arrow, clean-cut, idealistic but inexperienced farm boy).

Step 3: Add Details

It’s the small, well-defined details that help create realistic and memorable supporting characters, from the calm, in control, matter-of-fact demeanor of Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe (Harvey Keital) in Pulp Fiction to the sarcastic, complaining, and bungling but deadly nature of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) in Fargo.