Character Development in Screenplays

As any of you who have ever taken up (or tried to take up) running know, eventually, there comes a point where, both physically and mentally, you just cannot run anymore – you end up running into what Freud called the “shadow” parts of yourselves – you know, the kind that no matter how badly you want to get rid of them, they’ll always be with you. No matter how badly you want to, no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot power on after that point – the proverbial gas tank is on empty, and you didn’t even realize your warning light had been on for the last 30 miles, did you? This is a huge part of understanding character development in screenplays. So, now you have to make a very, very tough choice between two highly difficult forks in the road.

One is to fully embrace this part of themselves that they’ve been hiding for so long, embrace it as fully as they possibly can, and move forward with their lives (what we in show business traditionally call a “happy ending”). The other is to try and keep running away from that part and continuing their existence in a sort of silent agony. Conversely, this is what show business types call a “sad” or “tragic,” if you want to get technical, ending.

Throughout the course of the story, the more your characters are confronted with this possibility of this side of themselves being exposed, the more they will respond with are called compensatory actions, which means that they’ll go off hard in the opposite direction of whatever it is they’re trying to run away from. This is another important part of understanding character development in screenplays.

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that maybe your movie is a romantic comedy about a woman who was dating a famous barbecue chef, and she comes home one day to find him cheating on her. Does she just break up with him? No, because that’s not a movie, it’s a student short film – now what does she do next? Maybe she stops eating meat – or better yet – maybe she joins a militant vegetarian group and begins protesting outside of his restaurant. Does she still love him, and barbecue? Of course – she’s just joined up with that group to make herself feel better and run away from all the hurt and pain. See how much mileage, in terms of both character and story, you can get out of some simple compensatory action?

The reason they work well and why it’s important to understand character development in screenplays is incredibly simple – while not everyone knows what it’s like to be cheated on by a prominent barbeque chef (which gives a whole new meaning to the word “mess,” by the way), everyone knows what it’s like to hide away parts of themselves that they don’t want the world to see – it’s a universal part of the human condition, and as such, everyone can relate to it. And you know who’s on the list of “everyone?” A-List Hollywood talent, who can help get your movie produced, and audience members, who will pay your rent (and then some) for the month and then finally help you get that condo in Boca Raton that you’ve always wanted.