Slate Up: The Foundational Requirements for Memorable Characters

In partnership with Film Slate Magazine, we’re publishing “Slate Up,” a fortnightly series with practical filmmaking advice and musings. New articles, written by the team at Film Slate, will be posted every other Monday.


Creating memorable characters is something every screenwriter has struggled with at one point or another. Every writer approaches their screenplay from a different angle, whether they come up with the plot first, certain scenes that will serve as the lynchpin of the story, or even the third act that they will eventually have to build towards.

But none of it works without the characters. Every action is carried out through them in one way or another; every part of the story advances because of the characters in the screenplay. Even in a film that contains minimal dialogue or action, it will be the characters that make or break your screenplay. Here are 10 things to keep in mind when writing characters.

Goal and Opposition

Your character has to have something tangible that he or she wants to achieve. What does your character want and what will he or she do to achieve that goal? Wanting world peace is not a goal. If your character stops an ambiguously ethnic madman from blowing the planet into smithereens with some sort of doomsday device, that is a goal.

This doesn’t mean that the character has to operate in a vacuum; he or she can be influenced by outward forces and have internal conflicts and other desires along the way. Take the title character Clint Eastwood plays in The Outlaw Josey Wales, written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus. What starts out as a singular quest for revenge against the Union forces that killed his family and burned his house to the ground becomes so much more as Josey meets up with different characters (who all have their own goals) throughout the movie.

Your character’s goal is nothing without opposition. Even if what your character is going up against is vague, put a human face to it, or if it’s non-human, give it some quality that the audience can identify with. For Josey Wales, the larger symbolic enemy may be the Union Army, but its face is Captain Terrill, played with gleeful sadism by Bill McKinney. If there is more than one person or thing blocking your character, focus on a central antagonist, but don’t discard other threats to the main character. In the movie Aliens, written by James Cameron, Ripley and the rest of the crew fight a voracious outer space monster, but the character Carter Burke, played by Paul Reiser, serves as an excellent secondary opposition.

Motivation

What makes your character chase his or her goal? What drives your character? In The Screenwriter’s Bible, David Trottier says, “The more personal it is, the more the audience will identify and sympathize with the character.” In The Outlaw Josey Wales, what sends Josey on his bloody trail of revenge? The slaughter of his family serves as all the motivation his character needs.

Backstory

This ties in with the motivation, and it helps to explain the character’s actions throughout the movie. The backstory of your character should be decided before you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay. All people are flawed and all people have needs. In Slap Shot, written by Nancy Dowd, Reggie Dunlop, played by Paul Newman, is an aging minor league hockey player with nothing to look forward to as the end of his career draws near. His team is folding, and he has an ex-wife that he still loves and would desperately like to reconcile with. So when Reggie sees an opportunity to hold onto his career, bolster interest in the failing franchise he plays for and misguidedly try to win back his ex, the audience can sympathize with him.

The Will to Act

How does your character react to crisis?  What does he or she do in the face of opposition? In Slap Shot, as the steel industry in Johnstown is fading, and the team’s demise is imminent, what does Reggie do to hang onto his career and his identity? He changes the style of play of the team to attract more headlines and bigger crowds, and he starts rumors about the team moving to Florida to force the hand of management and the ownership.

Point of View and Attitudes 

As Trottier says, “Everyone has a belief system, a perception of reality that is influenced by past experience, a point of view that has developed over time.” No two people may react alike to the same situation. Your character has past experiences that influence how he or she will react to a situation. Two characters may reach the same point with vastly different attitudes about the event. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, written by Jack B. Sowards, both Captain Kirk and Khan find themselves facing off against each other after many years. Khan views the last 15 years as harsh exile and believes that Kirk destroyed everything that he loved, including his beloved wife. Kirk viewed what he did as giving Khan a second chance. They each have a different view of how they got to the same place, and thus also have different opinions about how their showdown must end and who is in the right.

Room to Grow

You have given your character a set of parameters. His or her personality, a sense of self, these things are the starting points for your character. The big event happens in Act I, to draw the character out, to start him or her on their quest. Your character should exhibit growth, have a realization about themselves, something which connects the audience to your character. At the beginning of The Outlaw Josey Wales, Josey is a loner with a scar on his face and a dark past. But as he continues on his journey, he comes into contact with a group of misfits who adopt him as their leader, whether he likes it or not. While his outwardly gruff demeanor does not change much, the audience gets to see the character grow and change throughout the movie.

Believability

Making your character seem human can be difficult, but it will reward your audience with a much richer experience. Movie characters usually have one underlying focus—their goal—which tends to be not how real life works. People have several things going on at once and very rarely get to focus on once task to complete. So even though the situation or the plot may bend the rules of believability, give your character human emotions, human traits and values. In Ghostbusters, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the film succeeds not only because of the effects and the humor, but because we see humanity in each of the four Ghostbusters and how they each react to a situation, especially Ernie Hudson’s portrayal of Winston, the only non scientist of the group. His character is the everyman, someone who signed up for a job and ends up in way over his head.

Details

These are the traits that make your character memorable. Do not boil your characters down to caricatures, but give them quirks and tics to flesh them out. In Die Hard, written by Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. de Souza, John McClane talks to himself throughout the entire movie. In the beginning, as a fish out of water New York cop in Los Angeles, it’s because he’s bemused by the world he finds himself in. Later, as terrorists have taken over the Nakatomi Plaza, he does it to keep himself sane as he also tries to keep himself alive.

Research

This comes down to the writer being willing to spend time developing characters, make them believable and do whatever necessary to create whole characters. Go the library, interview people in professions upon whom you’ll be basing a character, figure out what really makes your character tick. This may take your character away from your original version, but it may be better for the screenplay. This will also help find your character’s voice.

A Strong Supporting Cast

Your main character will carry the story, but you need to fill out the rest of your screenplay with engaging secondary characters. Don’t short change the opposition; a sidekick is important, as is a love interest or love interests. Tootsie, written by Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, is an excellent example of a large ensemble working well together. Dustin Hoffman is clearly the main character as Michael/Dorothy, but the roles of the opposition (Dabney Coleman), love interests (Jessica Lange and Terri Garr), the sidekick (Bill Murray), not to mention the minor characters that populate the world of New York drama, contribute to a well-written screenplay.

A screenplay has several facets that have to come together to be successful. Developing your characters and giving them strong foundations will be one way to create a connection with your audience and to bring your story to life. MM

Segments of this article can be found in The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Featured image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

This post originally appeared on Film Slate Magazine‘s website. Film Slate Magazine is a guide to the world of film and television. From craft articles to filmmaker interviews, first-person blogs to insightful opinion pieces, FSM tries to dig a little deeper to find the stories you don’t normally see from the filmmakers, producers, and actors who are making a difference. Follow Film Slate on Twitter and Facebook.

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