Believable characters are an important part of every screenplay. They are interesting, relatable, and familiar. They make movies memorable with their quotes and hi-jinks. Sometimes, writers have a hard time coming up with compelling characters and turn to themselves for relief. In literature, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was based on many of Mark Twain’s boyhood misadventures in the 1840's. And in screenwriting, the people who pen the pages draw upon experiences but, more effectively, parts of themselves to create characters.
In essence, every character a writer creates is based on some character they’ve seen before in some fashion. We borrow attributes we see in people from other films, our lives, literature, and even the news. The creators of Breaking Bad said they came up with the story of Walter White after seeing a news story about an uncovered meth ring and thought “If we get broke enough, we should do that.” By putting an imagined character in their well-intentioned, but jobless shoes who resorts to selling drugs to support their family, they came up with one of the most intriguing characters in television history. When writers put a bit of themselves into their writing, they tell stories that have well-formed characters because they know that character already, just as well as they know themselves.
There are many examples of stellar screenplays that are based on their writer’s story. Denzel Washington’s directorial debut in Antwone Fischer, which was written by the actual Antwone Fischer, exemplifies the use of one’s self to make a solid character and film. Fischer is a tortured soul who faces his demons under the tutelage of Washington’s character. It is based on Fischer’s actual life story. But what is most interesting isn’t Fischer’s tale. The captivating things about Antwone Fischer are his anger, his passion, his charisma, and his goals. It’d be pretty taxing on any writer to successfully craft a character as compelling and brimming with seemingly contradicting traits out of thin air as Fischer is. What led to his success in penning such a character was his intimate knowledge of the character: himself. He knew his protagonist’s mentality, his mannerisms and motivations better anyone else and that armed him with the qualifications to write that interesting character. Even if he didn’t write the screenplay to be his life’s story, it would’ve still been a great film if he just put himself into a character because he is so interesting.
Not all of us lead super interesting lives, but we are all interesting. Researchers can run extensive case studies on all of us. We all do similar things but have different intentions, reactions, rationales, and etc. Our differences in similar scenarios make us all extremely interesting. Therefore, a writer can create a great character merely by starting with themselves and putting even a little bit of themselves into their characters.
The next time you plot out a screenplay, put a character in it that has some of you in them. Writing them can be a lot of fun. Writing a character based on you dealing with conflict will feel natural. You won’t have to create the character and then wonder what they’ll do. You just have to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Writing the screenplay will be a lot easier and more fun when you’re the star of the show. Writing yourself into a screenplay also allows you the freedom to put yourself or someone with your attitudes in any place or scenario imaginable. You have free reign to flex your muscle and put your quirks in a bank heist, a space odyssey, a buddy cop movie, a horror flick, or whatever else you can come up with. Freedom like that can be daunting, but just think: you’re the one who’s free to do whatever you want. With yourself.