How to Create Authentic Screenplay Characters Part 1 of 4

Character development Part 1 – Building Legends

Developing your characters for feature screenplays can be a huge challenge for storytellers because you have less than two hours (90-120 pages in proper script format) to establish and demonstrate their Ordinary World, then usher them through their transformation. 

You already know your main character has to demonstrate ‘change,’ so it’s critical to understand where they’re starting from, and how they got there before you can even begin to show their arc. Here are some ideas to get you started. And if you haven’t already, download our two-page Quick & Dirty Cheat Sheet on Character Development. 

Think of character development as building believable Legends. Remember the alias quiz exercises in Argo where Ben Affleck’s character grills the American hostages on tiny little details of their adopted Canadian characters’ backgrounds? Like that. 

List their Wants, Traits, and Flaws

Do this for each of your main characters. What do they want? What traits describe their PERSONALITY? What about them drives their spouse or mother or girlfriend crazy?

NOTE: Not all of these will go into the introduction. But you need to know them before you type FADE IN:

Your character’s personality as defined by these things will help you navigate your story and keep it interesting. 

WANTS: There can be several (the job, the girl, happiness, to win the lottery, to stop the nukes) but one of them will be central to your story. Include them all when you sketch your characters.

TRAITS: How would you describe your hero to a single friend who might be interested? Or to your spouse? Taciturn? Strong, silent type? Exercise addict? Expert fisherman? Gregarious? Comedian? 

FLAWS: These are often invisible (but not always) or relate to the unseen backstory, so dig deep. Insecure, serial dater (i.e. noncommittal), procrastinator, short-fused, or disappointed?

We designed the Badass Beat Boards™ Character Profiler guide for you to write down all of these so your characters are always in front of you while you plot your beats.

When you understand your character’s backstory intimately, you know everything about them. Whether they’re right or left-handed, how they take their coffee, what they dream about… 

Those minuscule particulars will not likely enter your story in any obvious way. But when you sit down to write your scenes, your character’s behavior and language will effortlessly spill onto the page.

Pro TIP: Try spending a day becoming your main character. Dress like them. Move like them. Lean into their quirks and flaws. Embrace their story’s driving goal. Observe their vocabulary and way of speaking as well as their physical mannerisms. *This trick works best if you share the gender of your MC, but try it even if you don’t. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how this exercise adds texture to these fictional humans you’ve created. And it’s fun!

Read Part 2 – How to Name Your Characters

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