By David Young · August 11, 2021
There’s not a single story that can exist without characters. Characters are the agents of change, the actors that make “action” in a plot possible. But in many stories, there’s a disconnect — a writer gets so attached to the plot, to their concept, that they neglect to acquaint themselves with their characters.
Characters are meant to exist as real, relatable extensions of us as an audience. It’s what makes any story worth watching. But there are dead giveaways for when a writer doesn’t know their characters — with the biggest indicators shown below.
While some characters don’t need strong visual descriptions to make an impression right away, it’s generally best for writers to give an idea of what the character looks or seems like, rather than shying away from it with vagueness.
A good example of this is when a writer describes their protagonist as “having style.” “Having style” means nothing definitively; however, if you want to indicate that your protagonist is always “dressed extravagantly,” do that by being specific with details that make a difference.
Similarly, unless it’s important to the story, it’s overkill to write details that don’t matter: to write that a character has brown hair and green eyes or to describe the different sport coats they wear throughout the script. Don’t provide unhelpful details — just focus on what makes the character stand out or informs the story itself.
Check out these great examples of character descriptions to get a better idea of how to write one.
Dialogue is hard, no bones about it. It’s difficult to whittle each characters’ words into a unique, identifiable voice.
To accomplish this, you have to think of the way your characters interact: who’s got an accent, who’s afraid to say the wrong thing, who’s the smart one, who’s the smart ass, and who’s got an oversized ego.
These should feel like real people, which means their conversations will reflect nuances that exist in your own conversations — and in what you hear all around you. The opening scene from Reservoir Dogs is an excellent example of how to make your characters’ voices distinguishable — even when there are a lot of them.
If your character sounds like all the others, though, then this voice and individuality are still lacking, and you’ll need to build it from scratch.
Characters in a story need motivation in order to act — just like we do in real life. However, not every story keeps this in mind. In the worst cases, characters either don’t act at all (passive protagonists) or they act without motivation, with the writer leaving out lead-ups to specific choices that the characters make — or even leaving out the consequences of their actions to the same effect.
For a protagonist to lash out at their friend in anger, there needs to be a trigger — and if there isn’t one visible, make it clear. Similarly, for a protagonist to take on a huge journey, they need a personal reason — not just a blanket “save the world” reason.
One of the more elusive clues indicating a lack of character knowledge is when you write about a character’s trait — but don’t prove that they have it.
You call your character smart, but they never say anything smart or prove they have the trait in question. The same for a character who’s being told they’re too much of a flirt, but all we see is their work-life — with nothing close to flirting being shown in the story.
Worse yet, you might even be showing your character contradicting the traits you’ve set. While acting contrary to beliefs is a great indicator of a character under stress, having a character who consistently makes choices that don’t fit the qualifications you’ve given them is proof that you’re writing an ill-defined character.
It’s important to understand who your characters are when you write — because, without that understanding, there’s no way to maintain consistency and to make your characters as real and relatable as possible for your audience.
Keep the above clues in mind — they will certainly help you deliver a script that has believable, active characters that garner interest and empathy from your audience. If you find that your traits are consistently proven, your characters have motivation and helpful descriptions, and that their voice feels unique — you’ll know you’re on the right track with your characters’ development!
Writing great characters means reading great characters! Download your favorite scripts for free at the TSL Script Library.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.