Character Building

Bringing your words to life

Characters are the thing that separate great scripts from only competent scripts – and great writers from only competent writers.

There are a lot of things you can work on to improve and hone your script and your craft – structure, dialogue, formatting, scene writing – but if your characters aren’t engaging enough, then everything will be a struggle, because they must drive everything that happens – whether they are people, aliens, animals or robots.

To write great characters, you need to know what the world looks like from their point of view – to step into their shoes and see from their distinct perspective. What does the world look like when Frank Gallagher or Dot Cotton or Miranda or Sherlock look out at it? What does the world look like when your character looks out at it? If you know this, then you can know how they might instinctively act and react in any given situation. And from this comes authentic drama and comedy.

Great characters are active, not passive. They are always on some kind of journey – physical, emotional, psychological or otherwise – and are always trying to do or get or reach something. What they want may well not be clear, or even remotely what they need. But they should always want and need something. From this comes dilemma and choices. And from this comes drama and comedy.

Great characters are distinct – they are not like anybody else, even if they have characteristics and facets that we see in other characters (and people). What is it that’s distinct about your character? What is it that’s particular about them? What are the things that most define what is unique about them?

Whether they are for drama or comedy, your characters need to be emotionally engaging – we need to want to spend time with them, see what they do next, fear for their safety, laugh at their flaws. We don’t need to like or admire or want to be like them – protagonists that do very bad things can be the most engaging and compelling and enjoyable. But they need to have some kind of emotional life with which we can empathize. They need some kind of vulnerability – a chink in their emotional armor or Achilles heel or blind-spot that makes them universally human.

Character is the beating heart of every great idea, every great story, every great script. Even if you don’t manage to get lots of other things right in your first script, if you have characters, we genuinely want to spend time with, then you have something very special indeed.

This information was harvested from The Writer’s Room as an educational tool. Credit:

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