‘The Character Writes for You’ Cliché

By Michael Schilf · January 13, 2011

It’s true. The character can do your job, but not in the way you’ve probably been told. Here’s how it really works: If you know your characters – and I mean truly know them, down to their core details (backstory, paradoxes, psychology, etc.) – it isn’t so much that the character writes for you. Instead, the character STOPS you from going down the wrong roads because your character simply won’t let you be false.

And this is true for all types of characters – as long as they are well developed. Whether it’s the protagonist, a supporting role, or just a one-string character in a single scene, fleshed out characters will safeguard you from forcing them into implausible situations or making them deliver unbelievable dialogue. If you know your characters that well AND you listen to their inner voices, your writing will definitely ring true.

This has everything to do with the 100 Percent Rule: you must be 100% confident with your script decisions all the time, every time. If you’re not completely sold yourself, it’s screenwriting suicide to expect your audience to buy what you’re selling. And listening to who your characters are is all part of this equation. If you’re honest with yourself, you – along with your characters – will always know when you’re cheating.

But how do you know when you know enough in order to trust your characters. There’s no magic recipe, but the best way is to ask the difficult questions. Using a character questionnaire can be an invaluable tool, but this question asking process doesn’t have to be some twenty-page character bio manifesto. Instead, think of it as an exploration. You might have to wade through 50 questions before you begin to see the iceberg under your protagonist’s surface, but sometimes answering just the right question or two can be the ticket.