This article is reprinted with permission from Scipt Magazine.
Do you know what I hate when I read a script? Two things above all else. A writer including a shot of ‘unpaid bills’ in their scene description, and a writer describing a female character as ‘pretty but she doesn’t know it.’
Both are lazy, sloppy cliches. One is also a bit sexist. Both convey to an industry reader that this writer is not someone infusing their script with an original voice, or original characters. Which means that script is essentially dead, on page one.
‘But wait’ I hear you cry. ‘My story is amazing! There are twists, and turns, and shocks, and car chases!’ Who cares. For decades up and coming screenwriters have been fed a heavy diet of ‘story, story, story’ and as a result, they feel an interesting plot will always win, even if it’s happening to a piece of cardboard with eyes drawn on. That is simply, and emphatically not true.
Characters matter. Characters are what drive sequels, and franchises, and box office. You don’t go see a sequel to see the same story, do you? No. You go to see the characters you care about do a bunch of other stuff they haven’t done yet.
And yet, based on all the reading I do, it feels like characters are often the least developed aspect of a script. A writer throws in some tropes – like the sexist one mentioned above – or some familiar ‘traits’. Small town cop who’s an alcoholic. Middle Aged man sad because of the death of a spouse/parent does something. Wife of Robert Oppenheimer who’s an alcoholic. And NOTHING MORE. No nuance, no complexity, just slap a trait on the person and let’s get on with the story!
If I asked you to close your eyes and think about your favorite movie moments – I’ll almost guarantee you’ll think of characters. Not car chases. People, experiencing intense moments that change them forever. Characters have all the power to move you, to connect you with the movie/TV series, to give you all the feels you actually want when you watch something.
Characters matter far more than you may realize. So it’s time to give them the time, and respect they, and your audience, demand.
But how do you do it? First, as you write your outline (yes, you need to write an outline), think about how you want your characters to change. The time we spend with them should change them forever. No going back to whoever they were when your script starts.
Next, think about what they think they want. Not what YOU want, what THEY want. Your characters are people. They have feelings, and desires, and just like you and me, they often think they know exactly what they want, and it turns out it’s completely wrong. Or it’s not what they NEED at this moment in time. Good stories often involve characters learning life lessons as they do whatever it is you get them to do.
Respect your people in your script. Think about who they are when they are not on screen. Think about them as complex, often contradictory human beings, or aliens, or whatever they are in your script. Humans are messy. We can be happy AND sad. Kind AND cruel. Messy. And we get impacted by our life experience. Constantly. We evolve, we grow, we make mistakes, we mean well and actually make things worse…messy.
And yet I see so many scripts where a writer has just given their characters a few, basic ‘traits’. Like ‘angry’, or as previously mentioned, ‘alcoholic’, or ‘broke’, or ‘heartbroken’. As if that is enough to define an entire human. When you start thinking about your characters as people, you will immediately be on the right track.
And then, the challenge is to connect these more complex people with your audience, as quickly and effectively as you can.
Characters elevate your script. More than story. Know that, and you are well on your way.
Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is a former journalist, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel, and one of the key members of the original ‘Borat’ team. He has stories.