An Introduction to Screenwriting (Part-4): Character Development

This is the fourth part of the series, an introduction to screenwriting. Click here for the first partclick here for the second part and click here for the third part. This part of the series deals with character development to complement the story structure. The character-driven scripts develop entirely based on character development and the plot-driven scripts have the conflict and drama generated through characters.

120 introduction to screenwriting part 4 character development

Understanding Characters

The writers must study people to write great characters. Not everyone responds similarly in a particular situation. For example, when a group of friends is casually chatting and someone narrates an incident, it may invoke various emotional responses in each person listening. It may offend someone, generate curiosity in someone else and others may just laugh at it. The differences are mainly because people have emotional attachments to certain objects, incidents, things, and people. But over time, these attachments may change and what offended them several years ago may become hilarious later and some may get permanently etched in their minds forever. This is the transformation of attachment. The emotional attachment and the transformation play a crucial role while writing a character. The response of each character during a scene sets the film moving and creates empathy in the audience. It is not easy to perceive the reaction of every character in every scene, so the writer has to create some tools to understand the character.

Character Biography

Several popular writers suggest writing character biographies that serve as a guide. It is better to write important life events for every major character. Although a majority of the character descriptions don’t be a part of the screenplay, they serve as the pointers to it. The character biographies or simple descriptions may range from a character’s choices of food, dressing, makeup, mode of transport, friends, beliefs, customs, etc to even dreams and past life. It is a matter of choice and some writers are gifted in that they directly write characters without any pointers. If you follow them, then all your characters behave alike and sound similar in the first draft. Even if you make subsequent changes, it won’t help the screenplay much.

Apart from the personal preferences, the personal, professional, and private life of every character needs to be written in a character biography. The personal life is family, friends, hobbies, and the lifestyle of the character. The professional life is colleagues, professional goals, working style, morals and ethics, work-life balance, and ambitions of the character. The private life is the internal world of the character which has the true nature of the character and his/her secrets and beliefs. These things help in understanding the character inside out without confusing between plot requirements and character goals.

Character Traits

The character traits are used in a screenplay and are derived directly from the character biography. The character traits include the appearance and attitude of the character which are explicitly discussed or portrayed in the film. The appearance includes the wardrobe and behavior of the character. Attitude is the perception of a character towards people or things. These things are to be either explicitly told in a voice-over or through dialogue, or expressed through the scenes. Most filmmakers prefer the latter as the film is considered to be a visual medium. For example, instead of telling the audience that a character is arrogant, it should be portrayed through a scene where the character throws away a coffee cup after an argument. The attitude should always be complemented by the tone of the dialogues. If a character hates pets, and particularly cats, then his tone should express it while talking about cats.

Expressing Characters

The first appearance of a character is crucial for a screenplay and the character traits should be expressed during the scene. The weakness, desire, and transformation of a character should be portrayed through scenes. The moral argument arises when a character’s values conflict. The values are the beliefs of a character about what makes a good life. The moral argument is a sign of professional writing and good character development. The characters are like pillars of the story world and the transformation of many characters may indicate the transformation of the society. So, the writers should be careful about writing the character transformations. For example, if a group of law-abiding citizens finds a bag full of money, one of them may want to keep it for themselves but if most of them think so, then there is something wrong with the story world.

The next part of the series deals with writing scenes. The scenes require well-written characters and it is easy to write scenes after the character development.

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