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How To Write a Screenplay Around a Title Character

By Eric Owusu · November 27, 2014

Although most movies are developed around a particular concept or story, there is a long list of movies that were created because of interest in a character or group of characters. There are movies built around Saturday Night Live characters like The Ladies ManMacGruber, and Superstar. But not only comedies get Hollywood movies based around them. Superhero movies like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel were written based on those characters and weren’t modeled after comic book narratives verbatim.

People mainly write a screenplay to exhibit particular characters because these lead characters are interesting. Audiences, we assume as writers, want to see a movie about an interesting character or cast. Most screenplays function this way regardless of the involvement of a superhero, a funny band of misfits, or a recognizable historical figure – Lincoln, Malcolm X, Selma, etc. So now let’s discuss tactics to write our own screenplays that are built around a character or characters.

Research and get to know your character well. You can’t build a story around a character if you don’t know much about the character’s personality, mindset, ethos, motivations, and tendencies. If it’s a character you’ve created that you want to write a screenplay around, know them intimately. Create a world that they exist in and know how they traverse it. Doing so will only make creating a story for them to exist in easier.

If it’s a character that is based on a historical figure or a previously created character like a superhero, research them extensively. Reading up on all the literature and interviews of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson probably was the first step writer Paul Webb took in writing the original screenplay for Selma. Things writers discover about their character can lend themselves well to the narrative of the screenplay that the writer builds to display their characters.

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Once you know your characters well, listen to your them. After getting to know them, let their ways help dictate the story that you’ll create for them (note: this is a suggestion, not a mandate). Paul Thomas Anderson (The MasterThere Will Be Blood) said he ‘tried as hard as he could to not do the writing and let the character do the writing.’ He gives an example of the writer wanting to put their lead character in a car chase and then hearing the character say they never would make decisions that would lead them into a car chase. I find that mentality to be an effective one when writing a story around a character. You wouldn’t find Batman playing the peacekeeper between feuding family members the way you would see a character do in the August: Osage County screenplay. Even though you, as the writer, are in charge, let the main attraction that is your lead character help direct your decision-making when you‘re planning the stories and situations to put them in.

When you have the character down and are ready to put all the pieces together to create the screenplay, use and write stories that challenge your character. Batman is just a man wearing a black bat costume if he doesn’t have a villain to stop and a city to save. Put your title character in the limelight of the narrative and have them battle for victory. Many of the best screenplays have that because it’s compelling and gets  audiences to root for a character or characters that the writer has presented to them.

When/If they overcome their challenges, make it rewarding. Have the character and the audience breathe a long awaited sigh of relief, sharing the satisfaction of having taken that wild ride together. Your screenplay can do awesome things and it should, if it’s serving as the platform for an awesome character. 

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