You’ve thought about your amazing concept and your unique, colourful world – but who populates it?
Often, high-concept scripts, stories with ensemble casts and millions of characters lack one crucial detail – well thought out, developed, and interesting characters.
Who are the characters of your story?
There’s a common practice of writers crafting their story and leaving their actors to make the characters memorable, entertaining, or unique. But this shouldn’t be the case.
From the second a reader – whether that be the actor, a producer, a script consultant, or competition judge – looks at your page, your character should jump out at them – hook them – entice them to read on and find out why that character is so interesting.
What should a character be?
The best characters ever put to TV or Film are the most complex, curious, and colourful, but they are also relatable.
To sum them up – they are three-dimensional. They feel real. They feel like they are part of a world, not just written to serve the plot.
A good character should develop with the plot, and react to it.
A good character should have flaws, quirks, emotions, relationships, wants, needs, and life.
A good character should feel alive.
But how do we create interesting characters? How do we develop them?
Before you start writing, consider using a popular and effective character development exercise to develop your character: Role on the Wall.
Role on the Wall
This is a classic drama training technique used by actors, but its principles carry over to scriptwriting too.
The idea of this exercise is to challenge yourself to work out and gather information that makes the character who they are, both internally and externally.
Often, the information you write down will not make it into your script – such as unnecessary background which would slow down your plot, or superfluous, prose-like description – but having this information to hand means that you have thought very carefully about your character.
This is the first step to making them more real – more three-dimensional.
Creating your Role on the Wall
First, take some scrap paper and a notebook and draw a gingerbread man or silhouette style outline of a character just like the example below. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, or the neatest or most accurate outline – just a representation of your character with space for you to write in and around.
Above the outline, write the character’s name, age, and if necessary, job title.
Outside your character bubble, begin by bullet pointing any information relating to the character’s appearance – what they wear, how they walk, even how they sound – anything that another character in your story will notice if they look at them.
Character descriptions should be kept minimal within a script.
However, if you have that extra information to hand and a clear picture of the character in your mind or on paper in front of you, I assure you that writing them will become ten times easier, and the character will be ten times more realistic.
This is your chance to go into detail about your character.
Besides, you may not have thought about their appearance before. Now, having decided that your protagonist always wears Christmas jumpers, or walks with a limp, or has a small speech impediment – how does this affect the narrative? How do other characters interact with them, knowing this information?
By looking closely at the details, you’ve successfully made your character feel more real – more human – and more developed.
If you’ve not made enough space inside your character bubble, you can instead write on the outside and connect your bullet points with lines to the centre like I have in the example below, or take a separate piece of paper
Inside, write down the character’s thoughts and feelings. Their emotions, their wants, their needs, their relationships – anything that only that particular character would know or feel about their world.
- How do they feel about other characters?
- Do they have undisclosed trauma?
- What motivates them?
- What are their morals?
- What is their personality like?
- Do they have fears?
Wants and Needs
Most importantly, every character should have a Want and a Need, and these are very different things.
A Want is what the character is striving towards and has a desire for – do they want money or comfort? A new relationship? A new coat? Something material?
A Need, however, is something that is essential rather than desirable, and they need it to survive as a person and as a character. For instance – security, approval, validation, and so on.
A Need is usually linked to the character’s internal descriptions, whereas a Want connects to their external description and how they want the world to view them.
Very seldom does a character Want and Need the same thing.
Using character development throughout your story, you can show that what your character Wants they do not Need by taking them on a journey of self-discovery.
A selfish character who Wants money may discover that they just Need approval.
A weary character who Wants solitude may actually Need companionship, but only from the right person.
Once you have pencilled in the character’s thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, and motivations, you have mapped out an entire person.
You have gone inside the mind of your character in an attempt to take them from being a fictional, two-dimensional character to a thinking, feeling, realistic human being we want to feel for, and root for, and care about.
Using your Role on the Wall
By the end of this exercise, you should have some more thoughts on who your character is and how they fit into your world.
Remember – this information is to assist you in developing your character, and not all of it needs to be included in your script. Use your Role on the Wall sheet as a reference point and check it throughout your writing process to see if you can use it to further your character’s journey.
Bring out the best in your script by bringing out the best in your characters.
Want to read more about how to develop your character? Check out this blog here featuring top tricks for writing great characters, and look out for more articles about character and development techniques.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor, and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing, and Researching the Media. Besides consulting on scripts, Eden writes content for radio, stage, and online, and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.