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!

Character Development Keys

March 25th, 2014 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.

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

Screenwriting Tip: Character work as iceberg

May 9th, 2013 by

In the current 1-week online class I’m teaching — Create a Compelling Protagonist — we have had an incredible experience, more than two dozen writers from all around the world uploading literally hundreds of posts, providing feedback and suggestions for each participant as they workshop their Protagonists. The energy is phenomenal and the quality of the comments equally so.

A question has come up: How much character development is enough?

In theory, I don’t think you can do too much character development. I say this coming from a specific place: Most of the scripts I read that aren’t good enough suffer because the characters are too thinly drawn, not complex enough to be compelling or interesting.

But Scott, I’m writing a genre piece, not “War and Peace.” Do I really need to do that much character development?

Yes, I think you do. Your job is to make your characters lift up off the page and come alive in the imagination of a script reader. To do that, you have to know them in a deep, personal, and specific way.

Otherwise you run the risk of just trafficking in caricatures.

That said, you’re not going to put all of what you know about your characters in the script. Rather most of the background and insights you have about your characters will exist off-screen.

Think of character work like an iceberg:


What you see above the surface of the water? That is what emerges in your script through a character’s actions and dialogue.

What you see below the surface? That is the depth of what you learn about the character when you develop them.

Bios. Questionnaires. Monologues. Sit-downs. Interviews. Archetypes. Whatever tools and techniques you use to go into your characters.

That informs your understanding of your characters.

That enables you to hear their voice.

That brings them to life.

All that content below the surface provides the foundation of what emerges of each character in your script.

So as you develop your characters, especially when you wonder if the effort is worth it, remember this: Everything you learn about your characters is helping to create an iceberg of understanding. The 10% that appears in the script derives from and is supported by the 90% of the work you do to bring that character to life.

Want to up your chops at character development? On May 20, I will be offering the companion class to Create a Compelling Protagonist. It’s called Write a Worthy Nemesis and you can learn about it here. If it’s anything like this current session, it will be awesome! So join me for a great week of learning, writing and creativity!

Are you good at writing characters?

February 18th, 2013 by

Do your characters come to ‘life’ when you write them?

Do they feel real, compelling, and lift up off the page?

Do they make sense and work together to support your story?

Do you know how to discover what each of their narrative functions is?

In sum, are you good at writing characters?

If so, perhaps you don’t need my new class Character Development Keys.

If not, this unique 1-week online writing class may be just what the doctor ordered. And you don’t even need health insurance to take the class!

The course is part of my Craft series of eight classes aimed at helping writers drill down into specific aspects of the writing practice. Dealing with characters is something we not only have to do on a daily basis, but should do well in order to find the heart and soul of our stories.

Moreover in my approach to character-based screenwriting, by going into your characters, that’s where the story reveals itself, everything from the nuances of each individual to big pictures items like Plotline, subplots, themes, and so on.

In this 1-week online course, you will learn about five archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — and use them to develop your story’s characters and help them come to life.

  • From questionnaires to confessionals to free association, you will learn keys to crafting coherent, compelling and charismatic characters.
  • Workshop some of your own story’s characters and develop them by digging into their respective narrative functions.

Seven lectures written by me, special insider tips, a Character Development Tools sheet, daily forum Q&As, workshop your story with my feedback and comments from classmates, a live teleconference, and most importantly the understanding to become empowered as a writer in working with characters.

Almost nothing excites an agent, manager, producer or studio executive more than reading a script with fully realized, three-dimensional, and compelling characters. Character Development Keys not only helps you to delve into your characters and understand them more thoroughly, it gives you an awareness to help bring your characters — and your story — to life.

The class starts Monday, February 25. I will only be teaching it one time in 2013, so enroll now by going here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you… and your characters!

Create A Compelling Protagonist

August 5th, 2012 by

In almost every movie, the most critical character is the Protagonist.

* Typically the story is told through their perspective.
* Their goal usually dictates the end point of the plot.
* All the other primary characters are somehow linked to the Protagonist.
* Normally they go through the most significant metamorphosis.
* And the Protagonist acts as the main conduit into the story for a script reader and moviegoer.

So guess what? You need to create a Protagonist that grabs a reader’s attention and keeps it for 100 pages.

How to do that?

That’s what we will be exploring in my brand new 1-week online class “Create a Compelling Protagonist”. Go beyond writing a ‘sympathetic’ Protagonist. Dig deeper than giving your Protagonist a ‘flaw.’ That is surface level writing. In this class, you will learn an approach that will help you dig into this key character, and craft a Protagonist worth writing… and reading.

Seven lectures, forum feedback, teleconference, and the opportunity to workshop your story’s Protagonist [or Protagonists].

It all starts Monday, August 13th. You can learn more and sign up here.

Note: This 1-week Craft course is coupled with another new class called Create A Worthy Nemesis. That begins Monday, September 3rd. For information on that course, go here.

Don’t forget: Core II: Concept, a 1-week online class covering how to generate, develop and assess story concepts, begins tomorrow Monday, August 6. Your choice of a story concept is the single most important decision you make in any script project. This class offers a comprehensive take on the process. To sign up, go here.

And if you’re interested in TV writing, Tom Benedek has a new class: Write Your Own Original TV Pilot Script. That 10-week workshop starts August 13. For information, go here.

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

Uta Hagen’s “Nine Questions”

July 8th, 2012 by

In a recent Screenwriting Master Class course, one of the participants Mike Montgomery posted “Nine Questions” suggested by famed acting instructor Uta Hagen:

The following questions must be answered for each character study in order to define your role with as many specifics as possible. Consider these questions as research questions and continue to add answers and details as you explore and rehearse your character.

1. WHO AM I? (All the details about your character including name, age, address, relatives, likes, dislikes, hobbies, career, description of physical traits, opinions, beliefs, religion, education, origins, enemies, loved ones, sociological influences, etc.)

2. WHAT TIME IS IT? (Century, season, year, day, minute, significance of time)

3. WHERE AM I? (Country, city, neighborhood, home, room, area of room)

4. WHAT SURROUNDS ME? (Animate and inanimate objects-complete details of environment)

5. WHAT ARE THE GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES? (Past, present, future and all of the events)

6. WHAT IS MY RELATIONSHIP? (Relation to total events, other characters, and to things)

7. WHAT DO I WANT? (Character’s need. The immediate and main objective)

8. WHAT IS IN MY WAY? (The obstacles which prevent character from getting his/her need)

9. WHAT DO I DO TO GET WHAT I WANT? (The action: physical and verbal, also-action verbs)

While I would draw a distinction between what a character Wants [Conscious Goal] and Needs [Unconscious Goal], this is a good list of questions to ask any character, both to help develop them and before you write any scene. After all, an actor’s desire to know their character and what makes them tick aligns with a writer’s. As an actor once told me, “If you don’t understand a character, how can you expect us to?”

What do you think of these questions? Are there other ones you would add to the list?

Humanize your Nemesis

April 26th, 2012 by

Yet another fascinating discussion in my current Character Development Keys class, this one about how to create a “worthy Nemesis.” An excerpt from what I posted today:

Frankly that’s one reason why I choose to call this archetype Nemesis rather than Antagonist. Here’s a quote from my Core III: Character class, Lecture 3: Nemesis:

The word “nemesis” has an interesting linguistic history: Nemesis, the ancient goddess of vengeance. Dictionary.com defines nemesis as “an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.” And that is why I prefer Nemesis over the term antagonist. Whereas the latter is merely an “adversary,” a Nemesis represents someone who by definition holds the upper hand against the Protagonist.

By all rights, they should defeat the hero, thus immediately casting the Protagonist as an underdog — and this dynamic makes for a more interesting and compelling story.

“A worthy nemesis.” How many times have I heard that phrase tossed around in studio story meetings? Producers and execs know that without at least one strong oppositional character, someone working against the wants and needs of the Protagonist, it’s hard to generate tension and, therefore, drama.

One key I have found in doing this is to make the Nemesis a real flesh-and-blood type of character. However much time you spend digging into the Protagonist to find their humanity and core essence, you should spend an equivalent amount of time and energy with the Nemesis. In fact, one of the values of working with archetypes is it allows you to do an exercise whereby you switch Protagonists — that is you look at the story universe through each character’s eyes as if they are the story’s P. This is especially valuable for the Nemesis, a character some writers find difficulty writing because they are… well… bad. By looking at things through their eyes as the P, it’s much easier to humanize them.

When you humanize the Nemesis, that brings them closer emotionally to the script reader. And that creates a really interesting psychological dynamic where the reader now finds him/herself identifying even in a little way with the Bad Guy.

Here is a great little example: When Hannibal Lecter says he will help the FBI find Buffalo Bill, what is his request? He could say, “I want a naked baby to devour raw.” Ugh, right? Can’t relate to that. Instead, he says, “I want a view. I want to see trees. Water.” Everybody can relate to that. In that moment, we can, if we let ourselves, almost feel sorry for Lecter. And that creates a more multidimensional experience for the character and the reader in association with the character.

So a part of being a worthy opponent is all those things you list above, absolutely. But also the human element. Because in doing that, we make the Nemesis worthy of a reader’s attention due to our increased identification with him/her.

The Nemesis character is almost always hugely important to a story for multiple reasons, one of them being that they generally are involved in a relationship with a Protagonist that pivots on key existential questions: Who is the Protagonist? What is the nature of their soul? What is at the core of their being? Will they thrive or die emotionally, even spiritually?

To the degree we humanize the Nemesis, we make them that much more powerful as characters because they become more intriguing and compelling.