Every screenwriter has been through the grueling process of building characters. We’ve completed questionnaires of character traits, asked questions, yet they still seem a bit wooden and one-note in our screenplay.
How can you add depth to your movie characters so they pop? Physical traits such as height, gender and weight are good places to start. Let’s keep going.
This is probably the simplest one, so I’ll begin with it. List FIVE defining character traits for your character. By defining, I mean list the most prevalent character traits. I deliberately set the limit to five, so you don’t waste time with minor traits.
When you really get to know your character, reduce your list to three defining traits. Examples of character traits include:
Humans are a peculiar bunch. They say one thing and do another. This is more than a matter of saying they’ll wear jeans, but instead wear track pants. It relates to humans with simultaneous, but diametrically opposed moral codes and behaviors.
For instance, your character might yearn for a quiet life in the country, but is constantly out on the town. Or they drink and gamble on Saturday night, but go to church on Sunday.
Why do people behave like that? It’s a matter of balance. We normally behave well, but we love to let loose every now and then. Suppressed emotions are eventually manifested through actions. Our dark side sometimes gets the better of us.
We all have at least one. Secrets are a great way to make your characters vulnerable to attack. The secret may be pivotal to your screenplay, such the identity of a murderer, or it may not surface at all. It may be part of your character’s backstory and it affects their behavior. For instance, two characters may have had a history in the past such as a romance or a rivalry.
A secret may or not ever be fully revealed during the course of your story. Sometimes it’s enough to realize a character has a secret which affects their behavior, attitudes, and relationships with other characters.
Traumas are disturbing incidents either from childhood, adolescence or adulthood which leave indelible wounds on a character’s emotional well-being. They inevitably precipitate fears and flawed behaviors later in life. Examples of character wounds include:
- being raped
- being bullied
- watching your parents die in a car crash
- fighting in a war
This is a character weakness that humanizes them. It is a negative trait that generates conflict in your character. In Ancient Greek literature, it is referred to as the Achilles Heel of a character. A trait that makes their lives difficult. Characters may or may not be aware of their flaws or the extent of them.
Examples of character flaws include:
- falling in love too quickly
- being impulsive
- being too honest with someone
This is a more serious personality defect, commonly known as a FATAL FLAW. It can lead to the downfall of your main character. Even their death. Character faults represent a debilitating struggle characters face every day.
Examples of character faults are:
- adrenaline junkie
- having a phobia
- emotionally shut down
Every screenwriter loves a character with a past. Unlike a secret which may materialize in the present. A character’s past deeply influences their psyche and affects their entire behavior in your movie script. A character’s past may or not be a secret.
Let’s see. Some examples are:
- belonged to a cult
- was home-schooled
- was a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay
- fought in a war
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