How to Create Characters — Creating Compelling Screenplay Characters

How can you as a screenwriter learn to create compelling characters? It all comes back to your characters – in order for this whole thing to work, we have to be emotionally invested in them, and not as movie characters, but as people. This might sound like a pretty tall order at first, but the mountain becomes far more scalable when you begin breaking down the problem in a series of smaller steps. And on that note, let’s take a more in-depth look at some ways in which you can better understand how to create compelling characters, and thereby more compelling stories, within your screenplays.

In Order for Us to Care, Your Protagonist Has to Care as Well

If you’ve ever taken a high school drama or creative writing class (where you should be learning a lot about how to create characters) or decided to be very, very brave and get bachelor’s degrees in those things at the collegiate level, you’ve probably heard a teacher say that “the root of all drama is conflict” or heard a “Foundations of Story” class professor go off on some long spiel about Campbell’s “monomyth” and “mythic patterns.” While this information can be helpful, it won’t help you better understand how to create characters.

I’m going to cut through all the D and D sounding language right now and make this very, very simple. You don’t need to do a complete psychological workup on your protagonist. To help you understand how to create characters, you simply need to have a guy or girl, or puppy — it doesn’t really matter. One of Disney’s highest grossing movies ever was literally about a fish) who has two essential truths to contend with in his life:

1. They really, really want something badly – not just mildly, but in an “itch you can’t scratch” kind of way
2. Whatever that thing is, they don’t currently have it, and they are willing to do anything, and I do mean anything, to get it

Those are the main ingredients for a great protagonist. Let’s use Breaking Bad as an example, mainly because you’ve probably already seen it, and rightly so – it’s more or less only the best American television show ever made. That whole show is driven by one thing: Walt’s need for money. He has cancer, it looks like he’s going to die, and he’s a teacher, so he doesn’t have any money to leave behind for his family. What is he willing to do to get it? Well, as those of you have seen the show know, we start at making and selling Wonka colored meth (pretty bad in and of itself) and end with multiple murders – and this guy is a high school chemistry teacher, for Christ’s sake!

They don’t have to be likable – we’ve very much living in the age of the anti-hero right now, but they do have to be driven, wildly so, to possess something that they don’t already have, and they have to be willing to do anything to get it. However, every coin has a flip side, and therefore, every protagonist needs an equally compelling antagonist to keep things interesting for us, the movie-going public who just paid $15 (if you live in CA or NY, at least) to see your masterpiece.