For a truly effective screenplay, you must know your characters backwards and forward. In screenwriting, the moment you begin to imagine character relationships - how your character deals with his parents, his siblings, his coworkers, and all that - you start to explore the world of your story, and suddenly scenes begin to emerge.
As you research your character (context, culture, occupation), creating details (attitudes, values, emotions), developing backstory (physiology, sociology, psychology), and establishing personality and behavior, you start putting the character in different situations in your mind, and you begin to imagine him or her in the most mundane and most exciting moments of his life.
The courage to deal with the trivial and banalities is something you should develop. Because often the best stories in screenwriting, are made from the most commonplace material, and if you don’t know how your character cooks dinner, does laundry, brushes his teeth, or what his little vexations are, his petty likes and dislikes, a dynamic, a full story will never happen.
Frank Daniel, the former chair of the Film Division at Columbia University and past dean of the School of Cinema-Television at USC, echos the point in five simple words: “A story starts with character.”
So if character is the key, and stories are only as good as the characters within them, you better create some damn, fine, outstanding characters.
The screenwriter should never decide where a character will go next or how a character would react or what a character would say in a given situation. And if you’ve done your homework, really enveloped yourself within the character iceberg, and you know your characters intimately, the rest is easy. The character tells you. All you have to do is listen.
In this section, not only will you learn how to create memorable characters through research, development, and psychological methodologies, but you will also begin to understand the character hierarchy, the application of major character roles in film, the importance of the most common archetypes that are used, and you learn how to write much better dialogue: show don’t tell.
When the begin the screenwriting process, always ask yourself the why: Why does the character ask to be in a story? What is it I feel about him or about her? Because then you begin to find out why you want to write the whole story, and what the passion of that character is, and why he wants what he wants.
Eventually you reach the moment where you can dream for your character, where you can remember for him or her everything that happened in his or her past. When that happens, then you are safe because the character (not the screenwriter) will find his/her way towards the resolutions of the story.
At this point, the problem is how to hit that character in his most vulnerable spot. How to put him in the worst predicament imaginable. How to strengthen that predicament, and how to increase, at the same time, his desire to achieve his objective.
Once you get that, you’ve got a story growing, and there is no problem what to do next. You just use the rational approach and start asking yourself: What are the sequences in which this character tries to get himself out of the predicament? That's screenwriting!
And you put him in that predicament. Then you have the steps from the set up of the dramatic situation to the culmination. When you can see the sequences and you start asking what event you can put in the center of each sequence, the story begins to unravel and then you have a chance to feel quite safe. You begin to have an outline, and after that, you can begin to write your screenplay.
Hierarchy works well in a stable environment. - Mary Douglas
The events that take place in your screenplay may not be stable, but the organization of your story and the creation of characters within it must be. You plan it before you build it. And understanding character hierarchy is part of that plan. Whether your screenwriting, or writing a novel, this heireachy is key.
But when I talk about hierarchy, I’m not referring to any system in which one character has authority over other characters within the world of the story. The condescending boss, for example, might be a minor character in the script, but clearly ranks higher on the corporate ladder than the shipping clerk protagonist.
Take Oliver Stone’s Platoon: the protagonist Chris follows orders from supporting characters Sgt. Elias and Sgt. Barnes, yet Lt. Wolfe, a minor character, is in charge of them all. But if we take Lt. Wolfe out of the mix, the story still works; we lose Chris, however, it’s a completely different film.
So character hierarchy, in contrast, refers to how characters rank above other characters as far as their importance within the screenplay. Clearly, the most important character is your protagonist. It is her story. We hope and fear for her. She is the one who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. Your protagonist is at the top of the hierarchical system - hands down. Without her, there is no story.
But what about everyone else: villains, mentors, friends, rivals? What if it’s a buddy picture or an ensemble piece? What about other main characters, supporting roles, subplot characters, even one-string parts?
It all depends upon the specific variables within each story. Sometimes the villain ranks a close second behind the hero. It’s hard not to rank Hannibal Lector any lower than second place in Silence of the Lambs. And sometimes the villain actually is the protagonist, therefore becoming an anti-hero. Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a prime example.
In a buddy picture, both protagonists share the top rung, with one always reaching a little higher than the other. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs and Murtaugh are partners, and even though both men have clear character arcs, it’s obvious we’re following Rigg’s story. In a disaster film, the antagonist is The Perfect Storm, a Twister, or The Towering Inferno, so then mentors, friends, and rivals rank close behind the hero. In slasher films, hierarchical placement depends mostly upon length of survival. The longer a character stays alive, the higher on the ladder they stand.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, character hierarchy in screenwriting and writing can be broken up into four main classes: main characters, supporting characters, subplot characters, and one-string characters.
What is your character’s role? Answering this question is the key to creating a successful character – a screenwriting necessity. You must know why a particular character is in your story and what role you intend him or her to play. Is he the hero? She the villain? And if he is the hero, what face does he wear: the savior, the recluse, the warrior, or the fool? And what of our villain? Is she the femme fatale, the narcissist, the psychotic, the traitor?
Understanding character roles is never limited to the protagonist and antagonist. A screenplay needs supporting players as well: friends and rivals. There are symbolic characters, mythic characters, fantasy characters, even nonhuman characters. Sometimes a group all share the same role, and characters often play more than one role at a time. Some are one-string characters, appearing in only a few scenes, and others are intricate to the sub-plot, having their own line of action connected to the main conflict.
Character roles have infinite possibilities, and they can be defined in different ways, but when it comes to designing those roles, there is one absolute: every character has a role to play.
An archetype is more than a stereotype or a generic version of a personality, and for the screenwriter, understanding fundamental character archetypes is an essential tool for understanding the purpose or function of characters in a story.
Archetypes can be found in nearly all forms of literature including screenplays, with their motifs being predominantly rooted in folklore, but it wasn’t until Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term archetypes when describing common character types, symbols, and relationships. In Jung’s view, archetypes were patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race. Screenwriting and writing is no different.
Jung proposed there is a collective unconscious shared by all, and when we enter the world of fairy tales and myths, these stories begin to reflect all times and cultures. And it is from this collective unconscious where the same character types seem to occur: questing heroes, heralds to call them to adventure, mentors to guide them, guardians to block their path, shape shifting companions full of surprises, and shadowy villains hell-bent on destroying them, and mischievous tricksters to provide comic relief. These archetypes can add so much densitiy to your screenwriting and writing.
Although the number of archetypes is limitless, some characters may switch from one archetype to another, and a character may even display the qualities of more than one archetype, it is useful to examine with the most significant, recurring archetypal images: The Hero, The Child, The Mother, The Sage, The Guardian, The Messenger, The Shapeshifter, The Fox, and The Shadow.
Anyone can write what we call dialogue, but writing good dialogue is no easy task. It takes time and practice to develop a quality ear. But it sits at the heart of screenwriting.
In a screenplay, dialogue is conversation, but conversation in everyday life is definitely not dialogue. Real talk is boring. If you read a transcription of a real conversation - even if the subject matter is controversial and full of passionate opinions - it’s completely absurd. This real talk is disjointed, long winded, redundant, unfocused, and often just too much information.
Alfred Hitchcock put is this way when explaining a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is no different.
So in writing good dialogue, it’s never about capturing truth or reality: how we really talk. Realistic dialogue only gives a flavor of reality. It is artful deception. That isn’t to say that the screenwriter doesn’t write dialogue that reads like real speech. Not at all. It must feel and sound believable, but the irony is that believable dialogue doesn’t exist in real talk.
Good screenplay dialogue has a rhythm, and therefore is easily spoken. It’s compressed and moves rapidly, like a ball in a ping-pong match. The verbal exchanges move back and forth between characters, shifting power from one side to the other, until somebody scores the point. Screenplay dialogue must be full of conflict, lots of it. And rarely do characters say exactly what they mean: dialogue is all about subtext.
Done properly, good dialogue will move your story forward and flesh out your characters, and in this section, you will learn to use some simple rules and tips as well as avoid common pitfalls to give a believable and distinct voice to your great characters.