How To Develop Characters Before You Start Your Screenplay

By Jameson Brown · November 4, 2014

They are the bolster of your story – the he or she who makes or breaks that final Act. So, don’t they deserve some time? Some attention? Screenwriting is an exciting process and it is easy to get caught up in the “getting started” phase. Naturally, we just want to start writing our story. We have sequences in our heads, action lines ready to go and dialogue locked and loaded. But don’t let the story trump who’s in the story. Without three-dimensional characters, a story will become riddled with complacency. Give your characters the respect they deserve by following these five ways to help build them out to their maximum potential.


5. Absorb Everyday Mannerisms

Every piece of writing that has been put to paper is an observation of some kind from the world around us. Storytelling via filmmaking is our interpretation of the world ingested and then funnelled back out onto the screen. The real creativity lies within the perspective we take on that funnelling back out part. So, make it a point to start to notice things regulalry. Sounds easy, but it’s not. Take a second or two longer to see why someone is doing something a certain way. It will pay off when graphing out a character, as you will have a toolbox of mannerisms to choose from for the character you’ve been waiting so vigorously to show off.


4. Review Core Emotions and Feelings

A lot of people lump these two into the same bucket. Although they are similar, they are not the same. Understand that emotions stem from the inner self – they are the more internal pieces of our mind we project to ourselves. Feelings are caused by external stimuli – they are the things that happen in the outside world (outside our brain) that then, in turn, affect our mind. When developing your character list, make sure you have a clear understanding of this and that you divvy out the correct internal and external characteristics to the most applicable character.


3. Give Them a Web

Drawing is a writer’s best friend. Even if you aren’t great at it, it still helps map your mind out on paper. Applying this tactic to your character list is vital – it helps you understand the size of each role and how each character’s makeup will affect the other. Start with your protagonist or antagonist and then work outward from that point.


2. Determine Their Gender

This is highly important because, obviously, males and females are different. Understand each character’s voice before giving them a gender. Again, easier said than done. You will be surprised how much that tactic can change what you initially had in line in the first place. Sometimes stories call for strong female leads who are take no prisoners powerhouses. Sometimes stories call for a male lead who must stand up to his surrounding peers and environment. Either way you skin it, make sure your roles are the correct gender. Yes, it’s that important.


1. Write Out Their Backstory

The most important tactic of all, give them their own story. Remember the screenplay you are writing right now is NOT the entire story; it is just a piece of the story. Your lead came from somewhere, did something and is here now trying to find that special “meaning.” As viewers, we need to understand that backstory and how it has shaped your lead to the beginning point of the screen story you are telling now. Now, sometimes a backstory is not needed. Halloween is a great example. Myers did not have that much of a backstory (well, in the original) and it worked perfectly for that story because it added to the mystery of this Shape walking around killing people for no reason. But this is rare so start with developing their backstory first and then, as you progress, test the waters with no background.