We’ve covered plot in Screenwriting Starter Part 1: Plotting and now we’re moving on to…
Are your characters boring? Or maybe they all sound like you? Do their decisions only serve the plot, and sometimes don’t even make sense for the character? Is your protagonist unlikeable? Do the protagonist and antagonist lack chemistry? Are your supporting characters not doing anything?
If you answered any of the above questions in the affirmative, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. I’ll do what I can to help.
“I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters.”
— David Lean
Remember what matters. While it is important to develop your characters, it’s also important to keep the context in mind when developing them. For example, we all know Batman’s parents were killed in front of him by a robber. This is an important part of his character development because it forms the motivation for him to fight crime. We do not see Batman as a kid sharing his lunch with his friends, because it just doesn’t matter in the context of grown-up Batman fighting crime on the streets of Gotham dressed as a bat. So don’t waste your time with bits and pieces of character development that don’t really matter to the story you are telling.
There are a two important perspectives to keep in mind when you’re drawing up a character.
- How does the character see themself?
- How do they appear to the audience?
You can probably think of a few other perspectives, but these are the two big ones. After all: a) everyone is the protagonist of their own story and b) everyone thinks they’re the good guy (with a possible few exceptions, *cough* Joker *cough*).
Remember these things when you get into the nitty-gritty of characters.
So I’m going to write this section as if dealing with a singular protagonist. If you’ve got multiple protagonists, that’s cool. Just go through this with each of them.
The protagonist is the character whose story you follow for the duration of the project. They are not necessarily the tellers of the story (e.g. Sherlock Holmes is the main character but John Watson is the “teller” of the story. In the books he was literally the character writing down his perspective. In the films and television shows he’s the character whose eyes you see through the majority the time), nor are they necessarily the heroes of the story (anti-heroes and straight-up villains can make interesting protagonists, even when they are terrible people. Some examples are Shakespeare’s titular character in Macbeth, or the pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita).
To choose your protagonist, think less about your characters and more about your story. What is the point of the story you are trying to tell? In Macbeth, Shakespeare wants to get across the dangers of greed and giving up morality for ambition. Because Macbeth is the one who fights an internal battle between morality and ambition, he becomes the best protagonist for the story. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are many cases in which the truth may be lawful, but not morally fair. Sherlock is the one to balance truth and justice, therefore he is the best protagonist. Through how the protagonist deals with the stories’ main conflicts, we see what the overall message is. Macbeth chooses ambition over morality and faces harsh consequences. Sherlock chooses justice even when it conflicts with the law, and things work out for the better and Sherlock is seen as a hero.
The best protagonists have inner conflicts like this, almost always directly related to if not exactly what the story’s overarching thematic conflict is. On top of that, their inner conflict is directly affected by the external conflict happening in the story.
Case Study: Iron Man
Tony’s inner conflict is his greed versus his morality. He is happy to sell weapons to bad guys and turns a blind eye to what they end up doing with those weapons.
The external conflict hits when those exact same bad guys use Tony’s own weapons against him and Tony is forced to face the violent part his company plays in war.
Boom. The protagonist’s inner conflict plays off the external conflict which develops the protagonist’s character arc and gives direction to the story. Sounds complicated, but you might find that it all sort of clicks.
Great! You’ve got your protagonist. You may or may not also have a plot. (Some people plot before creating characters, some people create characters before plotting, some people do both at the same time. All are valid ways of approaching a story.)
Now how does it all relate to each other?
Protagonist v.s. Antagonist
Antagonists are the most common kind of external conflicts used in screenplays, or are at least used to introduce external conflicts. The very best antagonists are the ones that directly threaten the protagonists and what they stand for. This is usually because the antagonist will have beliefs and goals that counter those of the protagonist, and by acting on those beliefs and toward those goals, they become a problem which the protagonist cannot ignore.
I loved how it was put in this video from Lessons From the Screenplay:
I personally think the Joker (as played by Heath Ledger, specifically) was a perfect antagonist. Anyway.
How does your antagonist challenge your protagonist and force them to grow?
Case Study: Black Panther
T’Challa (Black Panther) has recently become king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced and wealthy kingdom which is hidden from the world. He works to keep his country’s wealth and technology secret, the way it has been for decades.
Enter Killmonger, who grew up in America and has faced racism and his own hardships. He feels abandoned by Wakanda and believes they should use their tech and wealth to help Africans and African descendants who’ve been wronged gain worldwide power.
Killmonger’s beliefs are in direct conflict with T’Challa’s. Though Killmonger’s beliefs and ideas are extreme, the basis for them comes from a real place and we can understand why he thinks the way he does. They then shed light on T’Challa’s beliefs, finding cracks in the reasoning, and by the end, T’Challa’s mind is changed and so is Wakanda.
But if you don’t have a character as the antagonist, you can still have external conflict that challenges the protagonist.
Let’s look at Toy Story again. The internal conflict is Woody feeling his role as the favourite toy is threatened by Buzz. The external conflict that challenges him is being left behind with Buzz. Suddenly, Woody is being forced to work with Buzz to get home, and in doing so he has to face his own issues of jealousy and feeling threatened.
The direct challenge between the beliefs of your protagonist and antagonist will ignite conflict and the possibility of change, which are crucial to your story.
A good romantic relationship works similarly to how a good protagonist/antagonist relationship works. However, rather than threatening what a protagonist stands for, the best romantic partner for your protagonist should be the one that confronts them with what they need most. In relation to a protagonist’s inner conflict, where an antagonist would force the protagonist to change or defend their beliefs, a good romantic interest will usually point a protagonist in the right direction. Romance still forces the protagonist to face their inner conflict, but in a gentler, less antagonistic way. It’s about building on what is good rather than fighting what is bad.
At the beginning on Black Panther, Nakia, the romantic interest, is working out of the country, using her skills to improve things for non-Wakandans who need help. She even says straight to T’Challa’s face that Wakanda should open itself up and use its resources to help people. This shows how great she is for our protagonist. She doesn’t directly force change in the protagonist, but she encourages it. Her influence would improve his character.
But not all romantic relationships are between two characters who are perfect for each other. 500 Days of Summer sees a relationship that goes bad because the protagonist, Tom, is more enamoured with the idea of romance rather than the reality of who his romantic partner is. In this case, Summer, the romantic interest, still tries to point him in the right direction in terms of his inner conflict (the fantasy of romance vs the reality of it). Tom’s failure to see what she tries to show him ultimately dooms their relationship. Tom’s failure to change and his continuing to choose fantasy over reality is made obvious by the end, which I mentioned in Screenwriting Start Part 1: Plotting. It’s still a great film, with a well-written and complicated romantic relationship, but the relationship just doesn’t work out, and that’s okay.
Be very aware that there is a difference between a romantic relationship that doesn’t work out and straight-up abuse. Be careful not to portray abuse as romantic. A character can think the abuse is romantic, but do not try to portray it as so to the audience.
The biggest well-known example of this is Twilight, in which Edward is creepy and stalker-ish, but his controlling and borderline abusive behaviour is portrayed as romantic. Bella finds it romantic, which is one thing, but the abusive behaviour is also presented to the audience as signs of Edward’s love. And seeing as how much of that audience was made up of teenage girls (including a younger me), I don’t have to point out how damaging real-life repercussions of this can turn out to be. (I’m not going to get into the Fifty Shades series because I’ve succeeded in my quest to know as little about it as possible. However, I know enough to know this is a big issue in that series as well.)
I’ll say it again. Do not portray abusive behaviours as romantic. This is for obvious reasons, like influencing real-life people in negative ways, excusing real abusive behaviours and emboldening abusers with the normalization of such abuse. Remember: All media, even fiction and especially on-screen fiction, has an impact over society and social norms. Use your powers for good.
If you don’t know what is considered abusive behaviour, here are some lists:
21 Warning Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship: PsychCentral
5 Signs of an Abusive Relationship Most People Will Dismiss
Official: Twilight’s Bella & Edward are in an Abusive Relationship
These are just starting points. You are encouraged to do as much research as you think you need. And while abusive relationships are frequently thought of in terms of male abusing female, keep in mind abusers and victims can be any combination of genders. And yes, that includes non-hetero relationships.
If you want to write an abusive relationship as abuse, such as in Gaslight or Lolita, refer to section on Protagonist/Antagonist relationships.
A supporting character that isn’t an antagonist or a romantic interest tends to be found in a “best friend” type role (Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter movies), or a less-threatening conflict character who isn’t the main antagonist (Draco Malfoy, Professor Umbridge), or some sort of exposition-giving, guidance-type character (Albus Dumbledore). There is also often a character foil, usually a part filled by one of those three supporting roles. I’ll get into character foils later.
Supporting characters are important, and also have a role in the protagonist’s arc. They typically help the story along with little things that add to the protagonist’s journey and add to the conflict, internal or external. They can also have their own arcs and challenges and I encourage you to give them some. They will play a part in many a plot point and the interaction your protagonist has with them will change the audience’s attitude towards the protagonist. Supporting characters should be treated as people. After all, they have no idea they’re supporting characters. Supporting characters should all be their own protagonists, and even those who knowingly and willingly follow someone they consider of more importance than themselves (Dr. Watson for example) will have their own opinions, challenges, and traits.
You can use supporting characters to add new dynamics and more interesting elements to your script. They can be metaphors and they can become plot points and basically supporting characters will help to make up your entire story.
Shawshank Redemption (Spoilers!), a film with a message about hope, uses the supporting character Brooks Hatlen to demonstrate the lack of hope in the situation the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, finds himself in. Brooks also underlines the danger posed if Andy loses hope and not only finds himself unable to escape his circumstance, but unwilling to. Additionally, the arrival of the supporting character Tommy Williams is a metaphor for Andy’s renewed hope. Tommy’s subsequent murder is the antagonist’s attempt at killing the hope within Andy, and also acts as the Turning Point 2 (see Screenwriting Starter Part 1: Plotting) in the film, motivating Andy to make a final choice and propelling the story to its end.
This film is also a good study if you’re curious about films told from the point of view of a character that isn’t the protagonist. But we’ve already covered that.
The Character Foil
A character foil is usually a character whose circumstances are similar to the protagonist, but whose personality contrasts strongly in order to highlight what makes the protagonist special and worth following. Their opinions and beliefs challenge those of the protagonist, and the conflict from those beliefs usually solidify for the audience what is positive or negative, even if it means highlighting the protagonist’s faults. Oftentimes protagonists’ foils are their antagonists, but this is not a rule.
Some famous character foils include:
Dr. Frankenstein and his monster
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
Romeo and Mercutio
Jekyll and Hyde
Captain Kirk and Spock
Sorry, I can’t seem to find many clear character foil examples. There’s also a startling lack of female examples from those I could find. If you can think of some, please leave them in the comments below.
You can definitely contrast your character with more than one character, and just because a first character is a foil to a second doesn’t mean the second must also be to the first. Don’t let this foil thing limit you. In my experience, foils tend to appear naturally with conflict over the course of a story, and while foils are fascinating writing tools, they don’t need to be studied much to be used well. However, if you want to do further research on the subject, here’s a good place to start: “What is a Foil Character?” StoryboardThat
Writing Realistic Characters
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
— Elmore Leonard
When I say “realistic”, I don’t mean they have to make sense within our world. I just mean they have to make sense within their world. For instance, Captain Jack Sparrow would not be realistic if you ran into him on the street. However, he fits right into the world of Pirates of the Caribbean and, while he’s still considered a kooky character by the other characters in the film, he has his place and his actions make sense. He is believable in that world.
When you have a character, you want to make sure you write them well. They need to make sense throughout the story. Inconsistent behaviour will not only undermine your characters, but will be super confusing for your audience. There are two big things that will communicate to the audience who your character is and what they’re like: Action and Dialogue.
This isn’t just what they do, but also how they do it. At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry finds himself unable to board the Hogwarts Express to go to school. Does he give up and go home? Or does he start crying in the middle of the train platform? No, because he’s determined and brave, even at twelve years old. What he ends up doing, stealing a flying car with his best friend and crashing it into a tree on the school grounds, shows that he’s also reckless and impulsive. He doesn’t quit, but he also doesn’t send for help or wait for the adults to realize there’s a problem. His past means that he relies only on himself and is used to solving his own problems rather than depending on adults for help. Later in the same movie, he does essentially the same thing on a bigger scale, and we believe a twelve-year-old would run into danger the way he does because the precedent for his character was already set at the beginning.
There are other ways to show character and also change what they might normally do. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter books, is a very smart character. However, when she’s under pressure, she tends to panic and her intelligence doesn’t help her much. A small example is in the books when she does an exam which requires she face a boggart which shows her her biggest fear: failing school. Hermione knows it’s a boggart (a creature which takes the form of a person’s greatest fear) and she knows how to stop it, but she gets scared and exits the exam in tears. Her circumstances impact her abilities, even when she has her knowledge to depend on. The way Hermione freezes under pressure is a recurring character flaw in the books, and when in the last book she is able to defend against attackers quickly and cleverly while under pressure, it is a bigger moment because we see how far she’s come as a character. (The movies did a poor job of showing this character flaw. It’s a shame, really.)
There are other things that will influence a character’s actions. For example, their past. Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series has an averse reaction to seeing a spider tortured with a curse. The curse affects him more than his classmates who also witness the tortured spider specifically because it is the same curse that tortured his parents into madness.
Character relationships will also influence their actions, and in fact relationships may be the biggest influencer of characters’ actions, but we’ve already covered relationships, so I’m going to move on.
Dialogue can be the most difficult part of writing a script, and in fact I think it can make or break a script. Good dialogue will propel plot, characterize characters, and relate relationships. On top of that, dialogue is the one thing from your script that has the best chance of making it to the screen in the final product, often word for word. It will be where your writing is the most exposed.
If you have trouble getting your character across with dialogue, start simply and slowly. This isn’t something you want to rush if you’re having trouble. When I have two characters talking that sound similar to each other or who I haven’t entirely figured out yet, I take it one line at a time.
First, what are the circumstances under which they’re speaking? What are they saying out loud versus the subtext of the conversation?
Which character will start? Why is that character starting the conversation? How will they start?
What does the other character think of that start? How do they want to respond? How do they actually respond?
Eventually, as you get to know your characters better and the conversation picks up momentum, the question you’ll ask yourself after each line will boil down to this: What would this character say now?
Continue taking it line by line, asking yourself that question for each sentence of dialogue. As you go, you’ll find the conversation starting to flow and the characters starting to grow into their own. Soon you won’t be thinking so much along the lines of “What’s next?” and your characters will become real and start saying things without your help and instead you’ll be thinking “Where did that come from?” and “Did they really just say that?” and “Wow! I’m a great writer!” and bam. You’ve got yourself a conversation.
Straightforward conversations can be good exercises to discover and develop your characters with, but in a script, dialogue will often happen alongside action. Of course, one can exist without the other, just look at any silent film for action without dialogue (A Quiet Place is a good modern study), or films like Twelve Angry Men for dialogue with minimal action.
Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg for dialogue, and in fact I think dialogue is such a huge thing to cover that I’m going to do an entire separate post on it. So don’t forget to follow and you can look forward to that. Until then, here are a couple of video essays to help you out.
Even with lots of help, you’ll find the best way to improve your dialogue is with practice. Write a lot and write often.
“I feel I do my best work when it’s all there on the page, and I feel that the character is very vivid as I read the script and I’m not having to create stuff and trying to cobble together something. If I have to do that, then I don’t entirely trust what I’m doing.”
— Guy Pearce
Whew! Okay, so this Screenwriting Starter Part 2: Character was quite a bit longer than Part 1. The thing is, characters make up a huge part of your film. Films can exist without plot, and sometimes they exist without characters, but you’ll notice a lack of characters before you notice a lack of plot. Characters are also a lot more complicated than plot, so there’s a lot to cover.
Don’t forget to like this post if it helped and comment with any questions or favourite character moments in films below!