Maybe I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but thinking through your characters is really REALLY important. And I think sometimes conventional writing exercises designed to help you with characterization aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. (See Writing About Writing: A Case Against Character Bios)
When I first realized that I enjoyed creative writing, I oftentimes would “characterize” simply by thinking about the vague adjectives that applied to a character. Maybe they were adventurous, maybe they were shy. Maybe they were funny, maybe they were serious. And again this isn’t COMPLETELY useless… but I think we can do better.
The number one thing you need for a character is a framework for how they make decisions. This is especially true in screenwriting, where you often don’t have the luxury of an inner monologue explaining your characters’ thoughts. We need to watch them make choices to learn about who they are, and we need to understand WHY they’re making the choices they’re making. So let’s go through some questions that might help you get you there.
1. What does your character like most about themselves?
Our confidences are one of the things that drive our behavior. If a dude decides to post a shirtless selfie on Instagram and another one doesn’t, odds are it’s at least in part because he believe that selfie is attractive (whether or not it actually is is besides the point). The parts we like most about ourselves are the parts we have no problem sharing with other people. They’re oftentimes some of the first things others learn about us, or in the case of a fictional character, the first thing an audience will learn. Is your character more proud of their brain or their brawn? Are they confident in their business savvy? Their sex life? It all varies but it all determines why people behave the way they do.
2. What are your character’s insecurities?
So shirtless Instagram boy probably wouldn’t post the picture if he genuinely believed it was ugly. HOWEVER, there also might be a part of him that wants external validation. He’s not quite confident enough that he’s willing to go without explicit reassurance that he’s as attractive as he thinks he is (we’ve all been there). Just as confidences drive behavior, so do insecurities. The parts of ourselves that we hide, or continually seek validation can have an even bigger impact on the relationships we form with other humans.
Sometimes characters are insecure about things that are totally fine (like the beautiful girl who wears glasses and a ponytail because she doesn’t see how beautiful she is). Other times those insecurities are reflective of actual flaws and that’s cool too. Just remember that a character flaw doesn’t actually change how that character will behave. Perceived flaws will, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to be there in the first place.
3. What is your character’s level of risk tolerance?
We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and it’s relatively easy to show what a fictional character’s risk tolerance is even before you really get into your important plot points. For example, Marlin from Finding Nemo hates anything risky or dangerous, and this is established on Nemo’s first day of school before Marlin ever actually has to do anything dangerous. Dory on the other hand has a much higher level of risk tolerance which is why she oftentimes makes decisions Marlin wouldn’t have made on his own.
4. Does your character care more about the future or the present?
Some of us are here for a long time, some of us are here for a good time. Characters that are making their choices because they believe those choices will pay off in the future will behave much differently from characters who like to live in the moment. Again, there’s all sorts of ways to reveal this information before it’s about something important. When two friends go out to a nightclub, who is worried about a hangover the next morning and who is living life like it’s a 2010 Ke$ha song? This is a key factor in knowing how your character might handle the challenges you’re about to throw at them.
5. Whose opinion is your character most worried about?
Some people really don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about them. They are content to live life however they like and they don’t care about others. Sometimes this is portrayed as a flaw (Bojack Horseman, Rick Sanchez), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Other times we’re worried about what “other people” think. This could be a boss’s opinion, a love interest’s opinion, a parent’s opinion, or maybe just abstract notions of what’s “socially acceptable.” Either way, there’s pretty much always some human being that we are trying to please when we decide to make one choice over another one. Know who that guiding force is in each of your character’s lives.
6. What can inspire them to change?
This is perhaps the most important one of them all. As mentioned in another previous post, movie magic really happens when characters go on some kind of transformational journey. Therefore, it’s important to know what is such a high priority for this character that they are willing to blow off your answers to the first five questions just for this one thing. Family is a common example. I already mentioned Finding Nemo, and that applies here. Marlin’s love for Nemo was so powerful that it was able to prompt Marlin into doing things he never would have done otherwise. A similar theme is in action in Breaking Bad where an otherwise typical suburban dad is prompted to cook meth because he wants to provide for his family after he leaves. But maybe it isn’t family. Maybe it’s a romance. Maybe it’s something more sinister like money or power. Maybe it’s an adorable puppy, I don’t know. But either way your character needs some force in their life so powerful it can render every other aspect of their decision-making framework irrelevant. That’s what you need in order to make change occur.
Is this an exhaustive list? No. It’s something I threw together in less than an hour of real writing, plus some casual outlining. The real takeaway here is that you need to define your characters in terms that will help you define what choices they will make. Just knowing that a character is “adventurous” may not be enough to do that.