Black List writers on the craft: Characters (5 Part Series)

August 25th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

Last week: How do you develop your characters?

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 1) – Real people

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 2) – Brainstorming and asking questions

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 3) – Biography

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4) – Scene-writing

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 5) – Insider tips

Perhaps the biggest tip: Get curious about your characters.

In my opinion, the Black List is the most important brand related to screenwriters and screenwriting in Hollywood. Therefore it makes sense we should study the creative processes of writers who make the list. More insight and inspiration coming next week.


One Key to Character Development: Get Curious

July 14th, 2015 by

In my current Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop, the online message board discussion was about subplots. In the workshop, we explore my principle on that subject: Subplot = Relationship. By identifying key characters and their relationships, we zero in on them as subplots, each with their own specific Beginning-Middle-Ending arc and impact on the story’s central plot.

One of the workshop’s writers in commenting on another writer’s story provided several great questions about some of that story’s characters in terms of who they are, why they are, how they are, and so forth. Here is my response:

Thanks, Christine, for your post as it not only raises some good questions for Will to ask about several subplot relationships, it also points out the importance of curiosity for the process of character development. Note how you list a number of questions. That is curiosity put into action. Questions provide windows into the lives of characters, revealing inner states of mind and emotion, as well as personal history and backstory.

So when you have an impression about some aspect of a character – let’s say, you get a sense they are an introvert – ask: Why is she an introvert? How does being an introvert impact her social life? Does she like being an introvert? Does she wish she could change? Is her introversion innate to her as part of her nature or is it a characteristic forced upon her by life circumstances? If the latter, what are those life circumstances? Does her introversion impact the way she speaks? Does her introversion impact the way she has feelings or even allows herself to have feelings?

All that and more based on a single impression. Obviously, the questions here lead to other impressions of the character which lead to other questions. Pretty soon, you have a fleshed-out sense of the character, one that will almost assuredly influence the emergence of the story’s plot via her relationship with other characters.

That’s what curiosity can do for you in terms of developing characters.

Here’s a great quote from Tarantino: “I need to know where these people [his story’s characters] come from. It’s a universe I’m creating, and I have to know my universe backward, forward, and sideways. The audience doesn’t need to know, but they need to know I know.”

The bridge to that level of understanding is questions you ask about and of your characters.

So one key to character development: Get curious.

Questions can be amazing tools in both character development and crafting a story. And curiosity is the engine that empowers the question-answer process.

Reader Question: Should antagonists think they are the protagonists of their own stories?

May 18th, 2015 by

Reader question from @farrtom via my recent #scriptchat appearance :

Should the antagonist think he’s the protagonist of his own story, or does that make him too relatable?

I provided a brief snippet of a response in the #scriptchat conversation, but there is an important point here worth delving into more thoroughly.

@farrtom: Yes, by all means, the Nemesis / Antagonist should think s/he’s the Protagonist of their story. You know why? Because they are the Protagonist of their own story! Indeed, every character is their own Protagonist. They see, feel, and experience the story universe through their specific senses, their own perspective, and as a result develop their own world view.

So at the very least, you would be wise to spend time when developing your Nemesis character(s) to spend time with him/her/them seeing the story universe through their eyes. Sit with them. Talk with them. Experience how they relate to the other characters, what each represents to the Nemesis. The same questions you ask a Protagonist, e.g., What do you want, What do you need, What are you most afraid of, etc, ask of your Nemesis.

What is the value of these exercises? If you immerse yourself in the life of your Nemesis, you are much more likely to craft a multidimensional character, one a script reader may find compelling. And a more complex Nemesis who we can relate to and understand, even if we don’t sympathize with them, becomes a more interesting, engaging one, a more effective character in the context of the narrative, and an appealing figure for actors to want to play.

As to the second part of your question — does that make him too relatable — I suppose there is a risk a writer may so demystify a Nemesis, the character loses some of their power over our imagination. It’s one thing to be dealing with a mysterious Bad Guy/Gal, it’s another if the character has qualities which remind us of our pipsqueak brother. Then again, maybe not.

“I miss my wives.”

Immortan Joe – Mad Max: Fury Road

If your Bad Guy/Gal is worthy of being a Nemesis, they won’t be much like your pipsqueak brother at all. The more likely challenge in your work is to make the Nemesis more relatable. Why? Because when a script reader can find something within the Nemesis they can relate to, that shrinks the emotional and psychological distance between the reader and the Nemesis. That character is no longer an IT, rather s/he becomes a YOU.

I call this humanizing your Nemesis. It reminds me of that line from a writer I saw somewhere: “Even bad guys have mothers.”

So yes to doing character work with your Nemesis in which you look at the story universe through their eyes as a Protagonist.

And yes to digging into the Nemesis character’s inner life to find dynamics with which script readers and eventually moviegoers can relate.

That path will lead you beyond one-dimensional Bad Guys/Gals… into a world of complex, compelling Antagonist figures.

7 Character Development Keys

May 18th, 2015 by

Yesterday I was a guest of the weekly #scriptchat conversation (if you don’t follow #scriptchat, you should). The topic: Character Development Keys. Here is an abridged version of my tweets:

Welcome all! I’ve been a #scriptchat supporter since it started, so I’m happy to be here. Thanks @kim_garland for moderating!

Today’s subject: Character Development Keys.

Not a fan of ‘listicles’, however to maximize our time today, here you go: 7 Character Development Keys.

One of the most common critiques in Hollywood about spec scripts: FORMULAIC WRITING!

Too many writers focusing too much attention on plot using this or that screenplay paradigm or formula.

The single best way to avoid formulaic writing? Write from character. So the first key to character development is this:

#1: Start with character. End with character. Find the story in between.

Embrace your characters and the importance of working with them. No one knows the story as well as your characters.

You’ve heard: Character = Plot? Well, BELIEVE that. If you work with your characters, the plot will emerge.

Which leads to the second point…

#2: Your characters EXIST. Their story universe EXISTS. Your characters WANT you to TELL their story.

Jules Renard: “The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place. All I must do is find it.”

These first two points are about getting you into a mindset: Writing a story is about wrangling magic.

Books on screenplay structure are fine, but if you don’t engage the magic of your story…

More than likely you will end up with a formulaic, flat script. And as I said upfront, that will get you nowhere in Hollywood.

How to find that magic? By immersing yourself in the world of your characters… and magically, they come to life.

#3: Think Protagonist. Think Disunity.

Your Protagonist is more than likely the single most important character in your story-crafting process.

The Protagonist usually goes on some sort of physical / emotional journey. That journey creates the spine of the plot.

The Protagonist’s goal almost always dictates the story’s end point.

All the other major characters are linked to the Protagonist and his/her journey.

Of all the story’s characters, the Protagonist generally undergoes the most significant personal metamorphosis.

You have probably heard: “Give your Protagonist a ‘flaw’. That is surface level writing.

Instead think of the Protagonist as beginning in a state of Disunity…

Disconnected from core aspects of their psyche. Living an inauthentic life. Who they are not who they are destined to be.

This is a more dynamic place to start a story and gives you, the writer, much more to work with re this key character.

Also this: If you begin with a Protagonist in Disunity, that implies a transformation that takes them toward Unity.

This is THE most common transformation type in Hollywood movies: Positive arc from Disunity toward Unity.

The thing is, all the other characters in most Hollywood movies are tied to the Protagonist and their transformation.

So think Protagonist. Think Disunity.

#4: Your characters come alive through DIRECT ENGAGEMENT.

You can do questionnaires, answering a series of questions about a character.

You can find some suggestions in a GITS post here.

You can do biographies, stitching together a character’s personal history.

These can be helpful tools, but I encourage you to do exercises which engage you DIRECTLY with your characters.

Here are three suggestions.

First, Interview. Create a scenario where you are engage a character in a question and answer scenario.

You: Psychologist. Them: Patient. You: Reporter. Them: Subject. You: Police Officer. Them: Suspect.

Create a scene and aim questions directly at your characters, soliciting their responses.

Second, Monologue. Sequester yourself. Quiet room. No distractions. Get into the head space of your character.

Put fingers on keyboard, then type what you HEAR them saying. Let your fingers go. No judgment. Whatever you type, great.

Here, you are reaching out to your characters. Remember they WANT you to tell the story. Monologues give them a voice.

Third, Sit-Downs. Again sequester yourself. Almost a meditative state. Go into the head space of your character.

Fingers on keyboard. Type WHATEVER comes into your mind. Anything and everything. For 15-20 minutes.

Don’t edit, pre-judge. Just type. 80% may be gibberish. But if 20% is authentic to the character… that’s pure gold.

Direct engagement with your characters. Magic happens here.

There are a lot more ways to develop characters. These are just some of the best ones I’ve found over the years.

#5: Character = Function. In a screenplay, every character has a narrative function.

They are not random, rather they exist in the story for a reason.

As you develop your characters, at some point ask: Why are you here? What is your purpose?

Often the key is to ask, How do you connect with the Protagonist’s journey? Which leads us to the next key…

#6: Five Primary Character Archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster.

I’ve been working with a theory for over a decade that most movies have these five narrative dynamics at play.

There is the character who has a goal and moves toward it. We call that forward-moving character Protagonist.

There is a character / characters who OPPOSE that forward movement. We call that Nemesis (or Antagonist).

There are ally characters most associated with the Protagonist’s emotional development. Call this Attractor.

There are ally characters most associated with the Protagonist’s intellectual development. Call this Mentor.

Finally, characters who test the Protagonist’s will. Ally, enemy, enemy, ally, shifting allegiances. Call this Trickster.

After you have worked with your characters and engaged them directly, step back and think character archetypes.

What is each character’s purpose? What is their respective narrative dynamic? Why do they exist in this story?

It’s likely you will be able to ascribe one of these five archetypes to each major character.

This can serve as a lens through to see them, a foundation upon which you shape their role in the narrative.

For more on the five primary character archetypes, here are some of my many blog posts analyzing movies:

True Grit  / Up / Casablanca / Star Trek

BTW Mad Max: Fury Road has five primary character archetypes in it. Awesome movie in part due to strong characters.

#7: Perhaps the single best character development tool of all: Switch Protagonists.

Work with EVERY character as the Protagonist.

Think about it: Every character BELIEVES they are the Protagonist. That’s how THEY experience the story universe.

So when you are developing your Nemesis, look at the universe through HIS/HER eyes as Protagonist.

Same with all of them. Inhabit each character as if they were the story’s Protagonist.

Writing exercises where you switch Protagonists is a terrific way to dimensionalize ALL of your characters.

To recap: 7 Character Development Keys.

#1: Start with character. End with character. Find the story in between.

#2: Your characters EXIST. Their story universe EXISTS. Your characters WANT you to TELL their story.

#3: Think Protagonist. Think Disunity.

#4: Your characters come alive through DIRECT ENGAGEMENT.

#5: Character = Function. In a screenplay, every character has a narrative function.

#6: Five Primary Character Archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster.

#7: Perhaps the single best character development tool of all: Switch Protagonists.

My final thought: Focus as much or more of your time on developing your characters.

Everyone responds to great characters: Managers, agents, producers, execs, actors, and most importantly audiences.

Go through every year’s @theblcklst scripts. What you see over and over: Great stories with great characters.

Great characters are the heart, soul, blood and sinew of your stories.

If you work with your characters, immerse yourself in their lives, your characters will emerge… and your plot with it.

For the entire transcript including comments by participants, their questions, and my answers, go here.

There were so many questions, I couldn’t answer them all, so I will be responding to them each day this week, and perhaps next week here on the blog.

Reader Question: What are some suggestions for doing character ‘interviews’?

March 25th, 2015 by

A reader question from Alex_kelaru in comments to a recent blog post in which I closed with this takeaway:

Do some interactive writing exercises with your story’s key characters where you zero in on what they believe, why they believe it, and how they see the world. Whether it’s an interview, monologue, sit-down, or journal entry, engage your characters in a dialogue. Learn what makes them tick… and why.

The question from Alex:

Great advice, I usually use the interview technique, I pretend I meet with my character in a coffee shop or some place out of their ordinary world and conduct an interview. Questions like ‘why do you think your story is worth telling’ or ‘Why might audiences dislike you?’ are some of the ones I ask.

However, Scott, I have a question. When you do an exercise like this, at what moment in the character’s life do you do the interview/monologue/sit-down. The character changes throughout the screenplay and an interview at the beginning might be (and it should be) very different then at the end of the story. I’m just wondering which one would be more useful ?

Good question, Alex. Over the years, I have aggregated a wide variety of character development tools which I use myself and have taught in the dozens of writing workshops I’ve led during the last decade. They are an excellent means by which we can interface with our characters, delve into them, dig into their core essence, determine their respective narrative functions, then build out from that foundation, exploring their distinctive personalities, and eventually hearing their unique voices.

The only way to do that is to engage your characters directly, deeply, and throughout the entire story-crafting and writing process.

As to when to engage them, at what point or points in their lives, this raises the fact that your characters exist. They live, indeed, have lived in their story universe 24/7/365 for the entirety of their existence. So you can begin in their Present, where they start the story. What is their current mentality and emotional state? If you are dealing with your Protagonist(s), be attuned to aspects of their psyche which are in conflict, either conscious or unconscious. I refer to this initial state as Disunity. [The Protagonist does not always go from Disunity to Unity, a positive transformation arc, but in most mainstream Hollywood movies, they do.]

But even a cursory amount of character work in the Present will point to influences from the Past which has led the character to their starting psychological state as well as the circumstances they find themselves in relative to the plot. That inevitably draws us into the character’s personal history.

I draw a distinction between personal history and backstory:

Personal History: Everything that’s ever happened to a character.
Backstory: Events / dynamics specifically tied to your story’s narrative.

Between character questionnaires and biographies, you can dig up much of this content. However you can also do interviews, sit-downs, monologues and the like with the character from a point in their Past.

For example, consider Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. When we meet her, she is an F.B.I. agent-in-training. But her Disunity is rooted in key experiences from her past, specifically when her father was killed when she was an 11 year-old girl. If you were developing this story, why not engage Clarice as a young girl? Before her father died. As she visited him in the hospital while he lay dying. At the funeral for her father. Indeed, the movie has two flashbacks, both of which feature Clarice at age 11.

What insights into Clarice’s persona could you gain from interfacing with her as a young girl? Enough to surface these two key moments… and presumably much more, including her traumatic experiences on her uncle’s Montana farm.

So you can engage the character in the Present and the Past. But why not jump ahead to the Future? Where does the character end up in terms of the metamorphosis? If it’s a positive arc, what does that Unity state look like?

There’s no single program and certainly no formula to dictate how a writer can develop their characters. I believe you have to trust your gut. If interviews are working, great. Do that. If not, try something else, a biography or questionnaire. Can’t get a sense of a character in the Present? Fine. Dig into their personal history by engaging them in the Past.

And then there some of my favorite tools: Character Archetypes. Once you dig into your characters and start to get a feel for them, consider their respective narrative functions. Who is the Protagonist? Nemesis? Attractor? Mentor? Trickster? I have been working with archetypes for over a decade now and find them endlessly fascinating. I look forward to digging into this content again starting Monday, March 30 in my upcoming Character Development Keys class. It’s a terrific course as we use The Dark Knight for our study script, a classic example of these five character archetypes at work in the narrative. For information on that, go here.

Bottom line, do whatever you can to engage your characters. No one knows the story better than them. You can connect with them in the Present, Past and Future to give you a deep understanding of who they are, why they are and where they’re going.

To read all of the posts in the Reader Questions archive, over 300 of them, go here.

Character Development Keys

March 23rd, 2015 by

If there’s one question I get asked about screenwriting theory more than any other it’s what’s my deal with character archetypes? Here’s your chance to find out what that deal is with the Screenwriting Master Class course: Character Development Keys.

It’s a 1-week online class where you do pretty much everything on your own time schedule: download and read lectures, review and post comments on the public forums, upload ideas and optional writing exercises. You want to do that in bed in your pajamas sipping coffee? Be my guest!

There is one teleconference which is live, but I record and upload that, so you can even check that out on your own time, too.

As to the course itself, there are seven lectures written by yours truly:

1: Character Archetypes and Story Structure
2: Protagonist
3: Nemesis
4: Attractor
5: Mentor
6: Trickster
7: Switch Protagonist

The study script for the course: The Dark Knight, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane. If you’re a fan of this movie, that alone is probably reason enough to take this class because you will understand the film in a whole new way, through the lens of character archetypes.

In addition, you will get the opportunity to put the theories you learn into action by workshopping one of your own stories.

And as a bonus: I’ll be presenting a set of character development tools I have assembled over the years to help you dig into characters even further to uncover their unique personalities and voice.

This is a great chance to immerse yourself in what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and helpful ways of approaching character development and indeed, the story-crafting process as a whole: character archetypes.

All of that in only 1-week. The course runs begins Monday, March 31. And again, you can do the entire course in your pajamas! Sucking down caffeine! Devouring chocolate bon bons! The beauty of the online experience!

For more information, go here.

Plus there’s this: For nearly 50% off, you can gain immediate access to the entire content of all 8 Craft classes as well as automatic enrollment in each 1-week Craft course. Check out the Craft Package here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Writing A Script, Part 4: Character Development

December 11th, 2014 by

People asked me how I write a script, so here we go with Part 4. This is a follow up to Part 1, which focused on story concept, Part 2, where we looked at brainstorming, and Part 3, which talked about research.


I’m compartmentalizing my creative process, which is misleading. Because as I’m brainstorming and doing research, characters emerge, plot ideas pop up, themes evolve. So do not think of it like, first I do brainstorming for 2 weeks, then I move into research for another 2 weeks, then into characters. No, it’s best, I think, to follow one’s instincts. And at some point, you will have accumulated enough story ‘stuff’ that key characters will spring to life. Then it’s time to dig into them.

I create individual files (in my computer) for the primary characters. I spend time with each of them, ‘sitting’ with them, my fingers on the keyboard as I try to with engage them. Sometimes I’ll take a walk with them, imagining us in conversation. As with brainstorming, I try not to pre-judge; here my task is to let the stuff flow. This allows the characters to be free to evolve into what they are to become.

Think on that word: evolve. It had never occurred to me until recently, but it’s implied in the word “development,” isn’t it? So as we develop our characters, in the best of all creative worlds, we’re letting them evolve into being.

The single biggest key I find about working with characters is to be curious about them. Ask them questions. Interview them. Talk with them. That works for some characters; others I find myself writing a narrative of their past. I don’t know why that is – again, I just follow my instinct.

Whenever an attitude, action, or line of dialogue pops up associated with one of my characters, I’ll follow my curiosity: Why do you think that? Why do you believe that? Why do you act that way?

At some point, I apply seven questions to my characters to try to see what narrative functions each might play in the story:

* Who is my Protagonist?
* What do they want(External Goal)?
* What do they need (Internal Goal)?
* Who is keeping them from it? (Nemesis)
* Who is connected to the Protagonist’s emotional growth? (Attractor)
* Who is connected to the P’s intellectual growth (Mentor)?
* Who tests the P by switching allegiances from ally to enemy (Trickster)?

I believe that these five narrative functions represented by this group of primary archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — occur in most every movie. Once I can identify the core function for each character, I can use that as a lens through which to interpret each of them, thereby tying them directly and intimately to the Protagonist’s journey.

Tomorrow in Part 5, we explore the plotting.

[Originally posted June 8, 2008]

Reader Question: How do you write characters without stereotyping them?

December 3rd, 2014 by

Reader question via Twitter from @Lauren_Gallaway:

I need character development help. How do you write a character w/ out stereotyping him/her?

Lauren, you hit the key words: character development. How to develop your characters? First, you have to believe they exist. Their story universe exists. So you go into the story and engage your characters directly:

* Questionnaire: If you Google “character questionnaire,” you will find dozens of them like this. Use the questions as tools to fill in information and background about each character.

* Interview: This is like a questionnaire only instead of writing in the third person, you interact with the character directly. Create a scenario: You’re cop interrogating the characters. You’re a priest and the character has come to you for confession. You’re a bartender and the character has sat down in front of you for a drink.

* Biography: After you’ve spent some time with a character, try your hand at crafting a biography about them. This will cause you to see possible links and events in their personal history which influenced who they are, how they act, what they believe, etc.

* Monologue: These next two are akin to meditation. Go to a quiet place, try to put yourself in the head-space of your character, then type or hand-write a monologue as delivered by that character. The goal here is to hear their voice, let them do the talking.

* Sit-down: Again get quiet, put yourself in the feeling-space of a character, put your fingers on the keyboard, close your eyes, then just type. 15 minutes, 20 minutes, a half-hour. Your mind will wander, but keep coming back to the character and just type what comes into your mind. Perhaps on 10% of what you write will seem to have any relevance, but that 10% could be gold.

* Primary Archetype: In my view, we see these five character archetypes in movie after movie after movie: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. After you’ve spent more time with your characters, ask yourself: What is the most fundamental narrative function this character provides? Do they provide opposition to the Protagonist? Probably a Nemesis. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s emotional development? Attractor. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s intellectual development? Mentor. Do they test the Protagonist, switching from ally to enemy, enemy to ally? Likely a Trickster. Understanding each character’s primary narrative function will not only provide a lens through which you can craft them individually, it can also give you a ‘map’ of their interrelationships.

* Sub-Type: Imagine a Nemesis as an Addict or a Warrior. An Attractor as an Orphan or Seer. A Mentor as Alchemist or Gambler. A Trickster as Clown or Sage. There are hundreds of Sub-Types you can use to explore and dig into each of your characters in order to discover what makes them unique. Again Google is your best friend. Here is one list.

* Exploratory Scene: Put two or more of your characters together in a scene. Use a setting that would fit with your story, however the scene itself may not necessarily end up in the script. This is just to play around with your characters, see how they interact, hear their voices as they emerge on the page, and so on.

The main thing is engage your characters. Interact with them. No one knows the story better than they do. Plus they want you to tell their story. In effect, they are your allies. The more you interface with them and dig into their personal histories, the more likely you will develop multilayered, distinctive individuals… and not stereotypes.

I should note I teach several 1-week online courses in this area including Character Development Keys, Create a Compelling Protagonist, Write a Worthy Nemesis, and a 6-week online writing workshop Prep: From Concept to Outline, which builds a story’s structure based on a ton of character work. I’ll be offering each of these in the first quarter of 2015.

And of course, there are my blog archives. If you go to GITS Reader Questions, you will find dozens of Q&A’s under the subcategory of Characters.

If anyone has other character development tips, please post in comments.

Thanks for your question, Lauren, and good luck with the writing!

You want character development tools?

September 8th, 2014 by

Check this out:

And this is just some of the character development tools available on this site.

If you have other character development tools or sites, please post in comments.

Crowd Sourcing: Character Questionnaires

March 28th, 2014 by

The subject of character questionnaires arose in one of my recent online classes. I posted some I have sourced and/or generated myself over the years, but it got me thinking: Why not ask the Go Into The Story community to see what questionnaires you may use to develop your characters.

If you’d be kind enough to share links to or examples of questions you have found useful, I thought we could use this exercise as a way of crowd sourcing multiple iterations.

I also have an idea to try something interactive, perhaps next week, to develop a specific set of questionnaires. Don’t want to give that up to muddy the waters for this post, but more on that soon.

Here’s the deal: Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to develop your characters is get curious about them. And one way to engender your curiosity is to ask questions.

Now there are good questions. And not so good questions.

Let’s see if we can aggregate the former.

Please head to comments with your suggestions. Or if you’d prefer anonymity, email me.

I have a feeling along with this idea bubbling in my mind, we may be able to generate a set of questionnaires that can be really helpful in the character development process.

Thanks in advance!