If I was asked to name some of the most important parts of a screenplay, one of them would be the characters. It might sound obvious, but solid, well-drawn and believable characters are not always a priority for studios (or so it seems.) In fact, I’m sure you can think of some examples of films that are stuffed with expensive sets, effects, costumes and make-up, but populated with wafer-thin characters.
It doesn’t matter how fantastical your story is, or even what it’s about, if your characters aren’t interesting enough, then it will be much harder to get audiences to care about what happens to them. Even if you’re creating a fantasy world, it’s still important for your audience to connect with your characters.
One of the key tools to creating good characters is to give them depth. You need to remember that these are supposed to be real people, and real people are complicated and often contradictory. It’s this emotional depth that will help to drive the drama of your story, as your characters conflict with each other, and, occasionally, themselves.
When adding depth to the protagonists of your screenplay, even the smallest details can help. What kind of jobs do they have? Family? Are they married or single? Divorced? Widowed? What are their hobbies and interests? Are they well off or poor, maybe somewhere in between? What are their politics?
Don’t worry about trying to fit all of this into your screenplay. Some of it will be present in a very obvious way, whilst some will only be implied. The rest of it will be background. It’s not at all wasted, however. It will help you to create real, flesh and blood characters that are credible.
So it’s also important to take time to think about who your characters are, and what drives them. What are their hopes and fears? Are they carrying any personal baggage? Guilt? A desire for revenge, perhaps? Or maybe some other dark secret from their past?
It will add extra drama if you can create a character with a personal issue that is at odds with some other part of their life. For example, imagine a police officer with criminal ties, possibly from their past. Or an assassin who had a deeply religious upbringing. As long as this can be kept within the realms of plausibility, then you can create some really interesting character drama that will help to propel your plot.
Of course, it has to be relevant to your story, otherwise it will look like unnecessary padding, details that have no bearing on the story. It’s about giving depth to your story and the people who inhabit it, and showing why these people are doing what they’re doing.
It’s also important that, once you’ve established what your characters are like, then their actions must flow from that and be consistent. Again, I’m sure that you can think of examples of films and TV shows where a character has done something that is, to use the well-worn phrase, out of character. It’s not always a bad thing to insert a twist like this, but it must be the result of that character going on an arc that explains this about-face.
It’s a fine balance, and it might take multiple drafts of your script to get it right. That’s perfectly acceptable. Rewrites are about getting the details right, and one of those things is making sure that you’ve created believable characters, in whom viewers can invest. This is true even if they’re an unsympathetic, villainous character. Whatever their function in the story, if they’re not interesting, then people won’t want to spend their time (and money) watching what they’re doing.
The details, large and small, will help to fill in the backgrounds of the characters taking part in your story. They will add light and shade, and make them convincing as real people. If it’s done well, this process will help you create memorable characters who will drive the events of your screenplay. It will also produce characters that your audience will care about, long after the end credits have rolled, and who they’ll want to meet again and again.
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