Creating Characters — Writing a Screenplay

Now that we’ve gotten the “why” out of the way, let’s take a look at the “how” for a moment – how do you create memorable, compelling characters that big time Hollywood stars are willing to stake their name on? Well, it’s not exactly a science – that’s why writing is an art, after all – but there are definitely some questions that you can ask yourself and try to answer, in full, to really help determine how compelling your main character is, and they are as follows:

1. What does the main character want?
2. Why must they get what they want?
3. What could they lose if they don’t succeed in getting what they want?
4. What is the big dilemma that they face at the end of the story?
5. What insight can we gain about the main character as a result of the choice that they made?

Let’s take a moment and break these questions down even further:
1. What does the main character want? – this is, by far, the most literal question of the bunch, but even here, you are saying something about the character’s background, psychological makeup, etc., by making them crave that specific object or attribute over anything else in the world that they could be lusting after (this is a very important part of understanding the process of creating characters). Like Hannibal famously tells Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, “…we begin by coveting what we see every day.” The thing that they want must either spring from their environment/psychological makeup or be universally necessary to human survival (i.e., food, shelter). If you really need help with this, look up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a famous psychological theory that basically states that all humans have certain needs and as they move upwards through the social strata, those needs change. You might find it an incredibly helpful tool for helping you give your character some motivation.

2. Why must they get what they want? Now we’re really getting into the psychology of creating a character here, and this is where things start to get interesting. You see, for all the mention of, and visual depictions of, meth and money on Breaking Bad – the show isn’t really about either one of those things. It’s about a man who’s faced with his own mortality and realizes that he’s played it safe his entire life. Then in his final months, he craves the excitement and adrenaline rush that comes with being a criminal. There are multiple times that Walt could quit – he makes way more money than he had initially estimated his family would need – but he can’t stop himself from coming back to making meth. Why? Because it was never about the meth – it was about him feeling alive – that’s what was missing in his life all that time.

3. What could they lose if they don’t succeed in getting what they want? – There are really two separate ways you could answer this question when creating a character and it depends more on if your film is psychological or visceral in nature (sometimes, if you’re a really great writer, like Wes Craven was, you could come up with something like Nightmare on Elm Street, which successfully manages to combine them both). If the film is more psychological or emotional in nature, then maybe they lose their mind, or their peace of mind, if they don’t succeed. If it’s something more visceral like “Speed,” for instance, where Keanu Reeves’s very life is at stake, as well as all of the passengers on the bus as well, then it’s important that you really spend some time working this question out. If you can’t tell us what’s at stake, then how is the audience supposed to know? This question really is the engine of the movie, and it should most definitely be treated as such – without it, simply put, nothing else will work.

4. What is the big dilemma that they face at the end of the story? At some point when creating a character, your main character is going to come to the proverbial fork in the road – they’re going to have to make a choice between two paths, and at least one of those paths should offer some sort of permanent life change for the protagonist. I’ll take a movie that most of you have seen, X-Men, and use it as an example. At the end of that movie, Wolverine has to make a choice – does he leave the X-Men and go back to the lonely life that he’s always known, or does he give up his entire lifestyle up to that point to stay with the team and fight for something more than just himself? It’s important that your protagonist comes to that fork in the road moment – do they go back to the old way of life or do they press on with the new life? When confronted with what they’ve been chasing the entire time, do they embrace it or do they realize that maybe their “happily ever after” wasn’t so happy after all? Either way, you’re going to be saying a lot about the character here at this moment, so make sure that it counts for both you and the audience – they’ll thank you for it later.

5. What insight can we gain about the main character as a result of the choice that they made? This is what the audience is going to take away from the movie, when it’s all said and done – the “point,” if you will, and we already talked about why endings are important earlier on. We’re expecting, if we’re really honest with one another about the process, to learn something about ourselves, however small, from watching a movie – something about our shared humanity. Hell, that’s why we started telling stories in the first place because we wanted to bring people together. When all is said and done, if you’ve done your job in creating a character, we should see a fully realized person learning something about themselves that they didn’t know before. To return to Breaking Bad for a moment, there’s a great moment towards the end of the series when Walt is trying to convince his wife, for the millionth time, that every terrible thing he did was for their family, and she does something amazing in response – she makes him confront the truth. That may have been why he got started in the meth game, sure, but at the end of the day, being a criminal made him feel alive, and that was the whole point of the story – know your limits.