Characterization is important. Script readers consider strong characterization as one of the single most important traits of a good screenplay. Your characters are typically judged based on their authenticity, uniqueness, and story arc. A common mistake that beginner screenwriters make is to focus on the plot of their script; however if you focus on creating great characters first, then your story's conflict and plot will flow naturally from your characters authentic needs and desires.
How can you improve the characterization in your screenplay?
1. Make Their Introductions Matter
Always show, never tell. Don’t tell the reader that a character is shy. Show their shyness through an interaction with another character.
Let’s look at the protagonist’s introduction in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
The platform across the tracks is empty. As an almost empty train pulls up to that platform, one of the suited men breaks out of the crowd, lurches up the stairs two at a time, hurries across the overpass and down the stairs to the other side, just as the empty train stops. The doors open and the man gets on that train.
As the empty train pulls from the station, the man watches the crowd of commuters through the train's dirty window. We see his face for the first time. This is Joel Barish.
Joel’s actions tell you everything you need to know about him before his physical characteristics are even described in the next paragraph. He breaks away from the mundane workday in desperation.
An added bonus is that his actions are a visual representation of the overall plot and directly reflect the premise of removing a strand of memories from one’s busy brain.
Here’s a great blog post from our partners at ScreenCraft:
2. Develop Their Backstory
A character’s story begins long before we meet them on the page, so it’s good to develop their backstories during the brainstorming process to create well rounded characters. Think of their backstory as the iceberg below the surface, even if the only hints of their backstory on the page are just the tip of the iceberg.
When tackling your screenplay, try not to slow the reader down with a block of exposition describing past events that are not directly pertinent to the story.
When Johnny Cash is introduced in Walk the Line, screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold use a single detail that foreshadows Johnny’s past.
A MAN IN BLACK (37) OUT OF BREATH, LEANS ON A TABLE SAW.
His face etched with hard living. His brow wet. His eyes dark, staring at— A FEROCIOUS SAW BLADE. Jagged teeth gleam.
Being a biopic, Johnny Cash’s past is later revealed, but this brief description epitomizes his character’s backstory with a single image. The saw blade foreshadows the inciting incident that ultimately drives young Johnny off his farm and into stardom.
3. Find Their Defining Feature
What makes your character relatable?
Why should a reader care about their story?
A great tool for finding your character’s defining feature is the Enneagram of Personality.
The Enneagram Institute, created by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in 1997, helped establish these nine basic personality types.
- The Reformer - Rational, Idealistic, Self-Controlled, Purposeful
- The Helper - Caring, Generous, Possessive
- The Achiever - Driven, Excelling, Image Forward
- The Individualist - Sensitive, Withdrawn, Temperamental
- The Investigator - Intense, Cerebral, Perceptive, Isolated
- The Loyalist - Committed, Responsible, Suspicious
- The Enthusiast - Fun-loving, Spontaneous, Scattered
- The Challenger - Dominating, Decisive, Confrontational
- The Peacemaker - Easygoing, Reassuring, Agreeable
This tool is especially helpful when developing supporting characters.
How do your supporting characters compliment your main character?
Each supporting character serves a function for the protagonist — that’s why they’re called supporting characters. Whether it’s the bully that threatens to meet our hero at the playground after school, or the quirky friend who provides comic relief and advice.
They are an integral part of your protagonist’s story. What is their purpose?
5. Make Their Character Flaw Count
How does your character’s flaw prevent them from conquering their conflict?
How does it steer them away from their main goal?
Often, the character’s main flaw is the obstacle they need to overcome in order to defeat their antagonist or accomplish their goal. Their major flaw should tie into the plot and be relevant to the character’s journey.
In When Harry Met Sally, Harry has a hard time committing to a relationship. As soon as things get serious, he bails. After making love to Sally, he returns to his flaw as a defense mechanism and jeopardizes their relationship. He has to overcome this flaw or lose the love of his life.
6. Make Their Motivation & Goal Clear
Why is your character doing what they are doing?
What are the stakes?
In the film Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw saves his family from Mayan raiders by lowering them into a pit. They’re temporarily safe, but if he doesn’t return they won’t survive. He’s taken captive and must escape certain death in the city, survive his pursuers, and beat a ticking clock scenario in order to save his family.
His pregnant wife and young child are his motivators. They inspire him to rise when he hits his low point. Every character should have a clearly defined goal.
7. Map Out Their Character Arc
Characters can’t remain stagnant. They need to overcome their flaws to reach their full potential.
Whether your character achieves their goal or falls short, they will change in some way. Even if they revert back to their main flaw, they would have learned something about themselves.
A character shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as they were in the beginning.
8. Find Inspiration in Real People
The goal for every character is to make them feel real. With this in mind, sometimes reality is where you can find the best traits to use for your characters.
Think of the people in your life who stand out in your memories — whether for good or bad. You don’t have to use their names but you should definitely use their mannerisms.
What makes them stand out?
Why do you remember them?
Some of the best characters are the characters you already know in real life.
Over the course of the rewriting process, your characters will continue to evolve. You’ll get to know them better and have more of an understanding behind their motivations.
The more you learn about your characters, the more depth they gain. The goal is to create memorable characters that readers will never forget.
You’re well on your way.
If you want to find more ways to improve characterization in your screenplays, search this Coverfly blog, as well as our partner websites for related screenwriting articles: The Script Lab or ScreenCraft.
Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson