Now You Too Can Write Compelling Characters In Your Screenplays


Characters are arguably the most important component of your screenwriting since they drive the action, which in turn, drives the theme.

Characters are not people

Characters in your screenplay are a composite of human traits, rather than a replica of a single person. It is therefore essential that your characters are given three dimensions to make them believable and more attractive to your audience.

You can give your character opposing traits to give them a sense of balance. However, their characteristics must be skewed predominantly towards one cluster of traits. After all, human behaviors lie along a spectrum and they rarely sit at the ends of the spectrum. Nobody is entirely good or bad. Not even Hannibal Lecter.

Create character profiles

I previously mentioned writing character profiles for each of your main characters via a questionnaire. Decide basic characteristics such as gender, age, place of birth, education level, marital status, job and such like. I often ask additional questions such how would they react if…? These are useful in scene construction as they will guide you to drive your character in the right direction as your plot progresses.

Questions include: how would your character react if their parents died in a car crash, had unexpected guests at dinner time, found a million dollars, found out they were about to be fired/ dumped, went to a nudist colony? I ask what does their bedroom look like? What do they wear to bed? What do they have for breakfast? It’s not vital to answer all these questions in your profile, but it helps you get to know your characters better. Think of it as speed dating. It also helps avoid character cliches such as the gangster who loves art, or is afraid of his mother, the prostitute with a heart of gold, or the icy librarian jilted at the altar.Gideonsway screenwriting tips: Screenwriter writers writerslife

What are ego states?

Who else knew more about human nature than the supremo of psychologists; Sigmund Freud himself. He talked about human development in terms of inner drives and desires, or ego states.

  • The Child State (Id). From birth, humans have to make their immediate selfish desires such thirst, hunger and discomfort known. It  is driven by the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure. This is known as the pleasure principle.  If these basic needs are not met, they are manifested by heightened emotional states, such as tantrums, tears, shouting for instance.
  • The Parent State (Ego). During the next three years, we understand that visceral responses such as tantrums and yelling are increasingly inappropriate. We learn what is right and wrong within our social constructs and that our actions have consequences. This is called the reality principle.
  • The Adult State (Superego). By the age of five, we develop a conscience based on prevailing morals and social values. We learn to reason, debate and argue form multiple viewpoints. Seven is considered by experts to be the age of reason.

The conscious mind according to Freud

Freud also believed that the majority of our life experiences are not readily available to us on an emotional level. He used the ‘iceberg’ metaphor, with the tip above water level representing our conscious state, while the bulk of the iceberg being underwater and representing our subconscious and unconscious states. Our conscious state represents our highest level of awareness (superego) and relates to our immediate surroundings. Consider it the RAM of your brain to use a computer analogy. The subconscious or preconsious state of awareness (mainly ego, although it covers the entire spectrum of consciousness) lies just below sea level, and can be prompted for access. This relates to past experiences which influence our current behavior. Think of it was your hard drive. The unsconscious state (id) occupies the largest area of your consciousness because these experiences haven’t formally influenced your behavior/ personality yet. Think of it as an unformatted/ blank hard drive.

We can see that these paradigms are also mirrored in Maslow‘s hierarchy of human needs ranging from basic physiological to self actualization. These have been discussed in an earlier post. Freud also believed that we are all products of our pasts.

As we progress through each ego state, we are imprinted with experiences that remain with us throughout life. This is called creating a backstory for your character as it helps us determine what motivates them. An example might be the ruthless CEO who was bullied at school. How would the same CEO behave if he/ she was loved and felt a sense of belonging at grade school? They must want something so badly, they’ll stop at nothing to achieve it by actively making decisions and taking actions. Characters must take both large (plot) and small (nuances) actions.

Psychology of character

A little basic psychology can add substance and authenticity to your characters and give them authenticity. Here are some definitions you may find useful:

CHARACTER: a representation of a person or class of person (type).

PERSONALITY: a group of behavioral, temperamental, emotional and mental attributes that define and individual

TRAITS: broad dimensions of personality; usually defined in terms of the “Big Five”.

  • Openness – appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience.
  • Conscientiousness – a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior.
  • Extroversion – energy, positive emotions, urgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others.
  • Agreeableness – a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.
  • Neuroticism – a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.

TEMPERAMENT: a mood or disposition of an individual

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