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Elements of Character Development

This article originally appeared on Screenwriters Daily April 1, 2012.

It has been said that story is character–the plot is determined by the decisions your protagonist makes and how the character reacts to situations he/she must deal with.  Like in the make-your-own-adventure books, the story becomes something completely different if the protagonist takes a right turn rather than a left turn.  Before you truly know how the plot will work itself out, you must know your characters.  This is where many stories fail because they are populated with flat, uninteresting characters.  How do you develop the characters to make them strong, interesting, and entertaining?  To flesh out the names on a page into three dimensional living and breathing human beings in your story, you must determine several elements pertaining to the characters.

Physical Attributes

You have an idea for a story, but need to figure out who your protagonist is.  The first thing is to decide upon the physical person–sex, age, race, and body type.  Let’s say you have a story about a settler in the Old West threatened by outlaws.  This threat would obviously be handled differently if your protagonist is a man or a woman.  Right there, that simple decision will determine the direction your plot will take.  A man might be more proactive and willing to fight with violence, where a woman may be more reactive and will try to handle the threat in a more subversive manner.

Age is a big determining factor as well.  A young adult would look at the situation one way, perhaps with idealism or naivete, while a person late in life would possibly be more cynical and bitter.  With just these two choices so far, sex and age, you have a clearer picture of who this person is without even yet adding personality traits.

It’s usually suggested by screenwriting books to not name a character’s race unless it’s essential to the plot, thereby allowing directors to cast actors of their choice.  However, as the writer, you should have a clear idea in your mind as to what race the character is because it will help you form a better picture in your mind.  The truth of Hollywood is that unless otherwise stated, usually a screenplay’s protagonist is assumed to be white (the exception is if the film could star an actor like Will Smith or Denzel Washington).  The race of the character would definitely be influenced by elements within the culture and society, as discussed later.

As with race, many times the protagonist’s physical attributes are left vague so that casting is done with the widest possible candidates for the role.  Unless it’s critical to the story that a character have blond hair and blue eyes (for instance, in King Kong, the darker skinned natives were amazed by Ann Darrow’s light hair and fair skin, so they used her as an offering to the giant ape), those are details that are not necessary to include in your character description.  However, we need to get a general sense of the person’s physical being.  Returning to our Old West scenario, if you decided that the protagonist was a young man who headed to the frontier from Boston, it might serve the story to have him slight of build and short of stature in contrast to the larger, more muscular villains he must oppose.  His physical description itself adds conflict to the story.  By contrast, if you had a big-boned middle-aged woman, she just might be able to handle herself along side the men during times of hardship.  In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he usually keeps his main characters vague so that the reader can project themselves onto the protagonist while describing every physical detail of the supporting characters.  In a screenplay, this is good advice, too.

Cultural and Societal Influences

While it’s often best to left race unstated in a screenplay, the reason that you as the writer need to have a clear picture of this character is because of how society and the culture in which he/she exists has molded his/her personality.  Take two people from different races who grew up in the same location and you’re going to end up with two diverse experiences.  Think how our frontier story would change by making the young man be from African heritage.  He could very well be from Boston, the son or even grandson of freed slaves who had not known the life of slavery but yet still must deal with the prejudices of others of the time.  How would a Chinese immigrant in this role change the tale?  Even in contemporary stories, a person’s race will affect the point of view.  This doesn’t have to be overt or sanctimonious.  Themes of race relations do not even have to be present in the story, but the character’s world outlook will affect the decisions made.

Taking race out of the equation, there are other cultural aspects to think about.  Geographic region is one; where your character is raised and currently lives is a huge factor in that person’s ideology.  Is he/she from a politically conservative or liberal area?  Do those views conflict with the character’s own ideas?  People from urban areas contrast with those from rural and even suburban areas.  Family religion (even if the character does not practice it) adds a lot to who that person is.  Does your character come from wealth or poverty (or somewhere in between)?  Pop psychology suggests that our childhoods creates who we become as adults–use this theory.  Think about how your character grew up and what influences were all around him or her that may have positively or negatively made an impact.  Regional dialects and idioms will alter a character’s dialogue as well.  Think about local color presented in movies such as Fargo, My Cousin Vinnie, Valley Girl, or even the Spider-man films based strictly on where the characters currently or previously lived.

Career and Education

A lot of what defines an individual is his/her chosen career, or the job the person is stuck in.  Think about how people identify themselves: “I’m a truck driver;” “He’s a delivery boy;” “She’s an bank manager;” “You’re an unemployed freeloader.”  A job often dictates appearance, since people spend much of their day at work, as well as demeanor because certain occupations require certain personality types or mold behavior (ever try to have a normal conversation with a kindergarten teacher without being talked to as a 5-year-old?).  A person’s career often places them in a particular place in society, and their world view will be affected by it.  Despite what television shows may indicate, people are employed as more than doctors, lawyers, and cops.  Find something unique and unusual that is specific for your characters.

Similarly, the education a character has received makes a difference in their whole being.  A high school drop out will not have the vocabulary as a person with a doctorate.  Young characters will most likely be students, but their future goals (higher education aspirations as well as what they want to be when they grow up) says a lot about their personality and choices they make at this stage of life.  A boy with little ambition in life will be drastically different than one who wants to be a pilot; similarly a girl who dreams of marrying a rich man will contrast with one who dreams of being a molecular biologist.

Primary Goal

Now we’re getting to the nitty gritty of the plot.  What is the one thing your protagonist wants?  This is the main conflict that drives the story.  Indiana Jones wants to find an important lost religious artifact.  Marty McFly wants to return to his own time.  Captain Ahab wants to kill the whale.  This is the goal that is established at the end of Act 1 and carries through to the climax in Act 3.  You establish the goal, throw obstacles at the protagonist to prevent the goal from being reached, and then bring this character to the moment of either obtaining the goal or losing it forever.  Remember, that this goal does not always have to be successful.  Is it more important for the protagonist to not reach it?  Indiana Jones always gives up the fortune and glory he seeks in favor of enlightenment.  Ahab was destroyed by Moby Dick.

Secondary Goals/Needs/Desires

Once you have your protagonist’s primary goal determined, you have the essence of your plot.  Now it’s time to add nuances to your character.  Are there other things that he/she wants or needs, even if it’s not clear to the character?  Marty McFly wants to go home, but also must make sure that his mother and father fall in love so that he will exist.  He also wants to get the girl.  By the end of the first Back to the Future, he has made things right with his parents, returned to his own time, and kisses Jennifer.  Not only has his primary goal been successfully gained, but so too were his secondary desires.

In our screenplay about the skinny young guy from Boston trying to survive in the Old West, his primary goal is to defeat the scoundrels who are threatening him on his homestead.  By the end of the story, we hope that he is victorious.  He should have some other goals that make his struggle more interesting.  The audience needs to invest more into his plight because more is at stake than simply holding his own on his land.  Does he want to fall in love and start a family?  Is there a secret gold mine on this property that nobody can no about that he plans to exploit?  Is he trying to overcome the expectations made on him from his station in live back home and be his own man?  Through the course of the story, set down by the primary goal, these other needs will be addressed–some perhaps for the positive while some may have negative outcomes.  Maybe he meets the woman of his dreams, but she is killed by the bad guys.  Perhaps he discovers that the gold mine doesn’t exist, but he learns that he doesn’t need it after all.  It could turn out that what the character traits he brought with him helps him deal with his new challenges, so he doesn’t have to outright reject everything that he was previously.

Fatal Flaw

In Greek tragedy, the protagonist had one major negative character trait that ultimately brought about his downfall.  Even if your story is a comedy, an adventure, or an uplifting drama, you want to add dimensions to your protagonist to avoid making him/her a saint.  Perfect people are boring.  Even Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes.  Kryptonite weakens Superman (who isn’t always the Boy Scout people think he is).  In the first Back to the Future, Marty is shown to have self doubt, a trait similar to that of his father.  Near the end of the movie, he not only plays onstage with a band, but he introduces a classic rock song to the teenage audience.  He has overcome that flaw.  The filmmakers obviously felt that it was too weak, so in Part 2, suddenly he overreacts whenever someone calls him “chicken,” which is what caused his future self’s pitiable life.  By the end of Part 3, he learns to overcome this weakness (even though it was a lame and rather shallow device).

What is your protagonist’s fatal flaw?  “Fatal” does not have to literally mean that it will kill your hero; it will cause distress and bring about conflict that may prevent the protagonist from reaching his/her primary goal.  If our Boston-bred pioneer has a drinking problem, for instance, this could be exploited by the enemy to do him in.  It could also be a wall between him and his potential love interest, who abhors alcohol.  Being drunk may cloud his judgement and he can only defeat the antagonists once he sobers up.  This flaw will either bring about the protagonist’s destruction, or be the one thing he must overcome in order to find the happy ending desired.

Interesting Traits

Now that we have the protagonist’s physical traits determined, laid out his/her backstory, clearly stated the primary and secondary goals, and given him/her a major flaw that is detrimental to the plot, there are a few more things to consider.  One suggestion is to layer the character with a few quirks.  These are not necessarily good or bad, but they make the character unique–nail biting, butterfly collecting, having OCD or ADHD, talking incessantly, making jokes at inappropriate times, being clumsy, collecting old bottles, wearing strange hats, and so on.  List three odd or unusual things about this person that is unlike any other character in your story and weave these into the portrait of the character that you create in the screenplay.  All these elements need to be established in Act 1 and carry throughout the story, and if you can work them into the resolution, all the better.

Think about some of the most memorable characters and what aspects of them have little to do with the central conflict–Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe, plays a violin badly, and has an cocaine addiction; Indy wears a fedora and carries a whip while in the field, but wears glasses and a bow tie while teaching; Erin Brockovich cusses and wears revealing clothing.  These character traits make the audience enjoy spending a couple hours with them.

Likes and Dislikes

As with specific traits, make a list of what your protagonist likes and dislikes.  Again, these may not have a direct impact on the plot, but will go a long way with understanding him/her as a human being.  If you look at a TV series like M*A*S*H, each of the characters were developed over time as having specific likes and dislikes.  Charles loved classical music, whereas it annoyed his roomates Hawkeye and BJ.  Colonel Potter enjoyed painting, riding horses, and reading Zane Grey westerns.  These preferences helped the audience connect with them as real people.  Similarly, Star Trek: The Next Generation gave its characters interests that fleshed them out as more than just the crew on a starship (for instance, Worf came to love the taste of prune juice).

Interactions with Other Characters

Characters are developed in a screenplay largely by what they say and what they do–dialogue and action.  What they say and how they act toward other people is critical.  In his authors notes for the sequels to Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card discussed the issue of how his characters relate to the others, and said that he often sticks note cards all over his computer that lists how each character in his story reacts to every other one.  How John treats Mary is different than how he treats Bob; similarly, Mary will act differently toward John and Bob.  Each independent relationship is unique from every other.  The complexity grows with a larger cast.  Your job as a writer is to keep these relationships clear and understandable for the audience.  The better developed these relationships are, the more realistic your story will be.

Reactions to Situations

Just like people react to other people differently, they will also react to various situations in many ways.  Stress can make one person stronger while it may make someone else break.  Something can be funny to one person and offensive to another.  What frightens one person may exhilarate someone else.  These reactions will inform the decisions that your protagonist must make in context to the story.  A character may be compelled into action because of a sense of justice, commitment to a person or ideology, or protection of loved ones; a different character may not have the same reactions so would make a different decision that would in effect change the plot.

Once you have determined all these aspects of your character, it will be easy to allow him/her to exist within the confines of your screenplay as he/she will seem like a living person rather than a creation of your imagination.  Let your protagonist free, and your story will practically write itself.

copyright © 2012 Jamie Helton

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2 comments on “Elements of Character Development

  1. Wow, this is very helpful Jamie! I wish I had read this before I did my annual movie pitch thing for a blog-a-thon. I do spend a TON of time thinking about the characters, especially the protagonist as it’s so crucial to the believability of the story. I usually already drafted the actor by this point so then I’d make sure the actor can pull off the personality/traits that I have in mind for him/her. Of course this is a ‘fantasy’ pitch, but I do become obsessed with it that I think about that character for weeks on end, ahah.

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