Creating characters for screenplays is a process that will be with you all throughout the screenwriting process, from fade in to fade out. It is an ongoing educational progression that expands as you delve deeper into your characters’ lives. There are many ways to approach writing character. Some writers analyze their characters for a long time and then, when they feel they “know” them, they jump in and start writing. Others create an elaborate list of characterizations. Some writers list the key traits of their character’s life on 3 x 5 cards; some write extensive outlines or draw diagrams of behavior. Some use pictures from magazines and newspapers to help them see what their characters look like. “That’s my character,” they say. They may tack the pictures above their work area so they can “be with” their characters during their work time. Some use well-known actors and actresses as models for characters. Choose your own way. You can use some, all, or none of the tools mentioned here. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it works. If it works, use it; if it doesn’t, don’t. Find your own way, your own style in creating character. The important thing is that it’s got to work for you.
Writing a Character Biography is a highly effective method for writing characters for screenplays. The character biography is a free–association, automatic-writing exercise that reveals your character ‘s history from birth to the start of the story. It captures and defines the forces — physical and emotional, internal and external — understanding your characters during the influential years that influenced their behavior. It is a process that reveals character.
Start at the beginning. Is your character male or female? How old is he when the story begins? Where does he live? What city or country? Where was she born? Was she an only child, or did she have any brothers and sisters? What kind of relationship did she have with her brothers and sisters? Was it good or bad? Confiding or adventurous? What kind of childhood did your character have? Would you consider it happy? Or sad? Was it physically or medically challenging, with illness or physical problems? What about his relationship to his parents? Was he a mischievous child getting into a lot of trouble or was she quiet and withdrawn, preferring her own inner life instead of a social one? Was she stubborn, willful and have a problem with authority? Do you think she was socially active, made friends easily, and got along well with relatives and other children? What kind of a child would you say he was? Was he outgoing and extroverted or shy and studious, an introvert? Let your imagination guide you. THE EXERCISE
Write character biographies for two or three of your main characters in about seven to 10 pages. More if you need to. Focus on their early years. Where was the character born? What did his/her father and mother do for a living? What is his relationship with his parents? Does he or she have any brothers or sisters? What’s the relationship— friendly and supportive or angry and combative?
Define the other relationships the character has in his or her second and third 10 years and see how these relationships formed his or her character. Remember Henry James’ Theory of Illumination: Every character sheds light on your main character. Before you begin writing your biography, think about your character(s) for a few days, then set aside a time where you can work two or three hours without interruption. No phone calls, no TV, no e-mail, videogames, or visits from friends. It may help to lower the lights or turn on some soft music. Then start “throwing down” thoughts, words, and ideas about the character. Just let it come out. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, or bad writing. Just get your thoughts down on paper, and don’t worry about anything else. You’re not going to show these pages to anyone; it’s only a tool for you to use while you discover your characters and “get to know them.” If you want to include parts of your character biography in your screenplay, fine. But just get your character down on paper. Free-associate. Let your characters discover who they are.
Do the same with the professional, personal, and private lives of your character. Write a page or two about what your character does for a living, his or her relationships and hobbies. You might even go into “day in the life” of your character and write what his or her day looks like? What does she do from the moment she gets out of bed till she goes to sleep at night? Write it in a page or two. If you need to write more, write more. If you can do it in less, do it in less.
If you discover any areas in a character’s life you feel unsure or insecure about, write it in a page or two. Do some research if necessary. Free-associate. The relationship between you and your characters is like the relationship between two best friends. You decide what you need then define it.
If you don’t know whether you should write something or not, write it! It’s your script, your story, your characters, and your dramatic choices. When you have completed your assignment, you will know your characters as if they were good friends. If you enjoyed this article by Syd Field, consider subscribing to the print or digital version of Script Magazine. Published six times per year, Script Magazine has exclusive articles from the best screenwriters and teachers in the world. Or visit www.scriptmag.com to read more articles on the craft of screenwriting, interviews with top industry insiders, and the latest screenwriting news.
How to Use Final Draft to Write Great Characters CHARACTER FORMAT
The CHARACTER element in your screenplay must be CAPITALIZED and indented 3.5 inches to the left. You don’t want to stop writing your story so you can toggle the CAPS LOCK key and tap the space bar. Final Draft formats it for you automatically. Normally you can just hit the RETURN or TAB key on your Mac or PC. Final Draft will automatically set you up to start writing a CHARACTER line. But there might be times when you want to change the order of an element. That is just as easy. You can use a drop-down menu on the toolbar or use a Keyboard Shortcut to switch to the different elements in your screenplay. The default Keyboard Shortcut in this example is Command-3 or Control-3. If you’d like to change a shortcut, just open Final Draft and go to Format > Elements. You can customize almost anything in Final Draft. A screen shot of customizing Final Draft from going to Format > Elements is presented on the following page.
EXAMPLE: CUSTOMIZE ELEMENTS BY GOING TO FORMAT > ELEMENTS SMART TYPE
Why type the same Character names over and over? Use SMART TYPE in Final Draft. When you first type a Character name in Final Draft, that name becomes part of Final Draft’s Smart Type database.
Then as you write your script, you only need to type the first letter in a Character’s name and Final Draft will automatically start to fill in the blanks for you. If that Character is in the SMART TYPE database, then just hit Return once and the rest of the Character line is completed for you.
Here’s an example from Toy Story. After the line from Mr. Potato Head, we only need to type W-O and – voila – Woody appears. Just hit Enter or Return and keep writing. Of course, if you’re introducing a new Character, that’s no problem. Just type it like normal. That Character will now be in the Smart Type database ready to go. And, like almost every tool in Final Draft, you choose whether to turn Smart Type on or off.
Final Draft includes a Names Database with over 90,000 names. Find that perfect character name by just brainstorming a few letters in the name. You can also instantly add that name to SMART TYPE so Final Draft remembers it for you. CHARACTER REPORT
Once your script is finished, you can run a report for each Character. You can view how many lines each Character has. You can also print out each Character’s lines of dialogue. This report is invaluable for the actor learning his or her lines. It also helps you, as the writer, make sure that each Character maintains his or her own voice. To view this report, first open a script in Final Draft. Then, in the Final Draft toolbar, go to Tools > Reports > Character Report.