The first workshop in the Introduction to Screenwriting series is now available as a downloadable pack under Resources

Building characters

What a character needs to have in order to be fully realised for the screen. How this differs from characters used in novels and plays.

Character sheets

Anyone who uses a piece of creative writing software, or who reads a book on the subject, will be confronted with the spectre of the character sheet. In essence this is a potted physical description and biography of a character. When writing a novel, or anything else come to that, it's something that offers a genuine advantage to the writer. In particular referring to such a sheet will prevent your character from intermittently being a different height, using a different accent, that sort of thing.

On screen this is much less useful. Remember that the physical aspects of the character, his bearing, his voice, his hairstyle, will be set by the actor based on the director's preferences. It may sound strange, after all you wrote him, but the director may envisage a very different person to the one you were imagining when you wrote the script.

Not only that, you can't even describe what the man's thinking. That has to be conveyed through action, words and most of all performance. This is a really easy thing to mess up, giving the actor room to make the performance memorable is a skill and one that will make actors much more excited about playing the role.

Characters exhibit character flaws

The single most important way to convey character on screen is to explore character flaws. In your file you have a list of things the character is great at.

Basic information
Holmes is tall and imposing, he moves quickly and with purpose. He speaks quickly.
Character information
Holmes is always the smartest man in the room. He is learned on almost every imaginable subject. He is loyal to his friends and committed to his work. He is immensely strong, very fit and with a powerful personality.

That's all fine, you'll have plenty of occasions to let him show off, but what builds depth into his character is not his strengths but his weaknesses. Macbeth is paranoid, Hamlet is obsessive, Prospero is arrogant, Romeo impulsive, Henry V is flighty. So, remember to add this part and make use of it as well.

Character flaws
Holmes is rude, arrogant and unfeeling. He unwittingly offends everywhere he goes. He is a thrill-seeker, enjoys violence and looks for it. He considers everyone else his inferior and even when describing someone's positives he is condescending. He rushes to judge people and situations, is extremely self-critical and has obsessive, psychotic and depressive episodes. He is addicted to thrills that include drugs and danger, he drinks too much and works antisocial hours, rising late and going to bed when he wants.

Now that's a character that actors will queue up to play. An anti-hero, if you will, no paragon is Holmes, he's a flawed, difficult, angry man.

Action

Characters act in line with their character. In a screenplay you don't have time to establish a complete character for a person and then, during the film, that person acts differently from usual. Whatever he does in the script is his character.

So is your character a paragon? Is he a flawed hero? Is he an anti-hero? Is he morally ambiguous? Imagine a simple scenario...

A young, female, detective has been so successful at breaking up organised crime gangs that a crimelord offers a reward for her murder. She's abducted and taken to a remote place where she's about to be killed, on video, as proof that the money is owed. Suddenly your protagonist arrives and...

  • Rescues her, killing the bad guys, modestly smiles when she thanks him, strides off into the night looking for his next mission.
  • Rescues her and immediately shouts at her for her stupidity in letting herself be captured. He screams that he has put his life on the line for her, yet again!
  • Kills the bad guys, sets up his own camera and records himself killing her to claim the reward.

His actions define him. Done well it means the audience can tell when he's lying because his words don't match his actions. Actions always trump words in film.

Personal characteristics

Only after you have defined the real strengths and weaknesses of a character can you move on to think about the personal characteristics.

Is he intelligent or stupid? Is he loyal or disloyal? Is he brave or cowardly? Is he honest or dishonest? THese must all be in your mind first, because they determine what kind of person he is.

Then, after that, you can think about the character's gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, height, skin-colour, educational background. These things aren't irrelevant and they can add depth to a character but they aren't the things that makes the character who they are.


"You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel, and I want them to feel uncomfortable."

David Fincher