Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Teaching your characters to drive…

Ever watched a movie and thought ‘that would never happen?’ or wondered why a movie that sounded so amazing from the synopsis or looked so great in a trailer failed to deliver? Chances are that somewhere along the line, somebody forgot to sort out the character arc of one of the lead or key supporting characters.


Our characters are the tent poles upon which everything else in our scripts needs to be hung. Everything about them – their personalities, their desires, their personal journeys – is vital because they hold our entire story together. So today, I’m going to teach you a little bit about character development and how it relates to story; I’ll start with the basics (a nice refresher for those who have been doing this a while) then throw in some more advanced things to think about and pay attention to. The goal of all of this is to make your characters more compelling and add depth to your cinematic world.


So where do we begin? Let’s start to build a screenplay from the very basics: turning a concept into a plot using the characters. Let’s look at a highly-clichéd example – the teen rom-com. We’ll keep it as basic as possible, because (I assume) we’ve all seen at least one of these movies in our lifetime. So let’s tell the age-old story of the nerd who fell in love with a cheerleader.


Right from the start, we have our two characters that we’ll keep as stereotypes (for now) to keep this easy to follow. NOAH is the nerd; he loves math, video games and is obsessed with the TV show Firefly. BRITTANY is our cheerleader. She loves clothes, shoes and tormenting people, and is dating a quarterback. Because that’s, like, her job or something.


See what just happened? I added a character. TYSON, our quarterback, is necessary because he’ll serve as our antagonist. He, as Brittany’s boyfriend, is the obstacle standing between Noah and what he truly desires. And yes, he’s a stereotypical jock. He likes beer, girls, cars, sports and shoving nerds into lockers. Lovely.


These are our three leads. They’re very, very typical of this kind of movie, so nobody will criticize you for using them too much. It’s not original (yet) but there really are no truly original stories anymore. So how do we make them all more interesting?


Let’s start with Noah. Yes, we already know he loves math, video games and Firefly. But he’s going to need more than that to a) make the reader/audience like him and b) to get the girl. And that’s what we’re rooting for, right? So let’s make him a bit cooler. Noah also speaks Chinese, plays bass and has a passion for restoring classic cars. In fact, when he’s not doing homework, playing video games or watching Firefly reruns on SyFy, he’s most commonly found in his garage, either working on the ‘68 Mustang he’s been rebuilding from salvaged parts or jamming with his band. Bands are always cool, right? And I vaguely remember that a certain someone loves cars…


That’s right, Tyson. See, in a love triangle situation, it’s far more believable that our hero will steal the other guy’s girl if they have something in common. I mean, she obviously has something in common with the guy she’s with, doesn’t she? So it makes sense they’d have at least one thing – other than her – in common too. Tyson loves classic cars. In fact, his old man bought him a Chevy Camaro as a gift when he got his license. But we need to give Brittany a reason to want rid of Tyson, otherwise Noah’s the bad guy for trying to steal his girl. So we make them different. In fact, we take some of Noah’s attributes and give Tyson the polar opposite ones. Noah loves math, Tyson only uses it for working out his passing average. Noah speaks Chinese, Tyson barely speaks English. Noah likes Firefly, but the most intellectually stimulating show Tyson has ever watched is Sportscenter. Noah is a nerd, Tyson hates nerds. They might be able to talk cars, but these two characters are already set up to hate each other.


So where does that leave Brittany? Well, ultimately, she needs to have more in common with one guy (Noah) than the other (Tyson), but it’s important to reveal this slowly. She might be impressed with Tyson’s Camaro, for example, but her favourite movie of all time is Bullitt. So a ’68 Mustang will probably get her a little hot under the hood. She might like football, but she’d rather play Madden than the real thing. She likes beer, but she can always introduce Noah to beer later. Firefly? She owns the box set. And she won’t find Noah’s habit of switching to Chinese mid-sentence as annoying as others – not just because of this, but because her (adoptive) parents are Chinese. She speaks it fluently.


So now we have three characters with a lot more depth than just their stereotypes, and we’ve even found some originality in there. It’s time to break out our trusty index cards (what? You don’t own index cards? And you call yourself a screenwriter! Buy some!) and see what scenes we can get from these character traits.


Scene Ideas


Let’s see what scenes these character traits give rise to; once we’ve got possibilities, we can begin to organise them and thread them all together.

  • Tyson catches Noah admiring Brittany from afar in the hallway and stuffs him into his locker.
  • Noah is practising with his band, as they’ve got a big band competition coming up. Unfortunately, he’s distracted thinking about Brittany and he opens up to his bandmates about it. One of them, his best friend LISA, is clearly torn about giving him advice because she has a thing for him.
  • Tyson gets wary of Noah’s growing relationship with Brittany and goes to pay him a visit. He finds Noah under the hood of his Mustang and is quietly impressed with the nerd’s ride. Not impressed enough, however, to stop him warning Noah off and dropping the catch – and the hood – on his head.
  • Noah and Brittany get teamed together on a science project; she insists they do it at his house because she doesn’t want him to know where she lives. While working on it, she begins to find out the things they have in common – similar music tastes, cars, etc. These study dates slowly become more and more like regular dates when he impresses her in small ways.
  • Noah discovers that Tyson has cheated on Brittany with her best friend, CANDY, and decides to tell her. She accuses him of making it all up to split them up.
  • They attend the spring formal; Tyson has Brittany as his date, Noah goes with Lisa. Noah is still too distracted by Brittany for Lisa to win him over. Lisa and Noah argue, Lisa leaves, Noah follows but finds only Brittany, who’s looking for Tyson. While Noah and Brittany argue, they turn a corner to find Tyson making out with Candy. Brittany slaps both of them and storms off. Tyson storms off in the other direction, leaving Candy and Noah together. Candy asks Noah if he wants to make out in a throwaway gag and he walks off to resume his search for Lisa, leaving Candy confused.
  • Outside the formal, Brittany and Lisa collide in the parking lot. Lisa lectures her for breaking Noah’s heart, Brittany figures out that Lisa is in love with Noah and (in the process) that she’s in love with Noah, too. She even learns that the way she treats people is awful for good measure. Awkwardly sowing a seed of friendship/rivalry between the two.
  • Brittany and the popular girls tease Lisa for being, well, unpopular in the girls’ bathroom.
  • At a band practise, tensions arise when Lisa finds it hard to play a song that Noah has written about Brittany. Noah yells at her, she storms off and the drummer, WILL, tells Noah to wise up and realise that she’s into him and it’s not fair to ask her to play songs about Brittany.
  • In a big final showdown, everyone is in crisis. The band are backstage for the contest but Lisa hasn’t arrived. Lisa is busy working herself through to the point where she realises that it’d be selfish not to go and Brittany is cheerleading at the big game. This leads to the big resolution, where Lisa arrives, the band go on and Brittany realises that she’d rather be with Noah than at the game, telling Candy to take the head cheerleaders job she always wanted because she realises popularity isn’t everything, etc. Brittany heads to the band contest and arrives just as, at Lisa’s suggestion, they play the song Noah wrote about her. The crowd go mental, the band win the contest and Lisa drags Brittany onstage to be with Noah, leading to the kiss of destiny.
  • A big aftermath scene shows Brittany and Noah having their happily ever after, Lisa and Will dating and Tyson getting his just deserts when he finds his now-girlfriend Candy making out with a random nerd. Probably at prom or something.


You’ll probably notice a few things while reading this: A) This isn’t a complete plot. B) I haven’t made use of every character trait I mapped out and C) this isn’t in any kind of order. The idea at this point isn’t to have a complete plot, but a set of scenes that I can write to get myself moving. The left-over character traits give me things that I can use to make up the scenes that string them together. And the order? That’s the joy of index cards – you can switch them around until they do make sense!


You’ll also notice that in the process of scribbling this together, I added three new characters: Lisa, Candy and Will. All three of these characters add key elements to the plot which serve to drive the action along.


Lisa serves to both provide a character that can give Noah advice and to provide a reflection on the main romance by way of her (rather complex) feelings for our hero. It’s also vital that he have a female best friend, as it gives me options down the line – she isn’t just there for him to talk to, but he’s comfortable enough with her to ask her for girl advice and we can use her to show how he interacts with women he knows versus those he doesn’t.


Candy serves as Brittany’s antagonist, but from the unusual position of also being her best friend. The way their relationship fluctuates gives Brittany’s world depth – she’s her partner in crime, her confidant and her sidekick one minute, while the next she’s proving the very caricature of the difference between the two worlds. Her purpose is as much to provide Brittany with a rival as it is to highlight the superficiality that Brittany is moving away from by remaining fairly constant while Brittany changes.


Will, meanwhile, serves as the voice of reason at the times when Noah needs it most. He’s almost the voice of the audience, telling our hero the things we already know when it becomes vital that he knows it. Simply put, he’s there to pull Noah’s head out of his arse. Also, he serves the purpose of softening the blow for the viewers who will inevitably begin to root for Lisa a little; he’s not the guy she initially wanted, but he was the one paying attention to her when nobody else did and he’s clearly a good guy. They work together well enough to satisfy the audience’s desires and tie off a loose end in a simple, effective way.


Just knowing the purpose of these three characters isn’t enough reason to have them there. Yes, it’s important that they serve a purpose, but they have to be fully-formed in order to fit into your finished work. It’s just as important to both your character and story arcs that you make them fully three dimensional.


I’m not going to go into as much detail here on these characters as much as I did with the three leads, but I will tell you that you need to go as in-depth with your supporting and minor characters as you did with your leads. Even the tiniest discrepancy is enough for someone to say ‘I’m not buying that’ and move onto the next script.


Another important character point that helps drive plot is the concept of background. You’ve undoubtedly heard people talk about background before, and specifically about how you should know what each of your characters was doing immediately before you started telling your story. And they’re right – that can make all the difference between an average script and a great script. But let’s take that one step further. I’m of the opinion that you should also know what each character was doing immediately before they entered each scene.


Did Brittany stop at the Drive-Thru for a coffee and a McMuffin between the game and the band contest? Probably not. But what if she did? That changes the emotions of the scene entirely. And knowing these little details are tools that you, like the great writers, should be willing and able to use to add depth to your script. Always remember: the characters need to feel like real, three-dimensional people. And real people have lives of their own even when you aren’t around to observe them. So should your characters. Always be thinking about what could have happened off-screen that can improve the way a character comes into a scene.


I’ll cover the lone concept of plot more thoroughly down the line, but for those of you having character trouble that’s holding you back, I’ll give you a quick checklist to iron out the snags.


Character Checklist


For each character, do you know:

  • Their goals. Short- and long-term?
  • Their complete backstory?
  • Their likes and dislikes?
  • What makes them special/unique?
  • How they speak?
  • How they change?


If you can’t answer all of the above- for every character – then you need to work on that character.


One final thing to remind you – it’s vital that, like a puzzle, you know exactly how your characters fit together. Why would the depressed, psychopathic goth chick and the rich, handsome pretty boy fall in love? Why are a cat and a dog best friends? Why do the aliens want to work with us instead of killing us? They must have something in common. And if they don’t, your whole plot just fell apart in much the same way those relationships would in real life. People don’t just bond arbitrarily, they bond based on having something – anything – in common.


I’ll undoubtedly be back with more on this, but until that day comes…


Happy writing.




May 23, 2013 Posted by | writing | , , , , | 1 Comment