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Screenwriting Tips

Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters

How to Create Great Characters

At the heart of every great script are great characters.

You may forget their names but you'll never forget them:

Spend lots of time on your characters. You need to understand them fully - their backgrounds, desires, fears, vices, weaknesses etc. Characters are the driving force of your script. If you don't understand them in-depth then how can they speak with their own unique voice, or explore their character arc. Each character should react in their own distinct way to a given situation - not simply how you, the writer, would react to that situation.

The Shawshank Redemption

To give you an idea of how crucial understanding their characters is to pro screenwriters, have a read of the description used by Michael Mann in Heat for Robert De Niro's character:

NEIL McCAULEY and a nurse get off. Neil carries a paper bag and wears white pants like a hospital attendant. Neil is an ice-cold professional: very big, very tough. At 42 his short black hair is graying. He spent eight years in McNeil and three in San Quentin. He got out and hit the street in 1987. Four of the McNeil years were spent in the hole. Neil's voice is street, but his language is precise like an engineer's. He's very careful and very good. Neil runs a professional crew that pulls down high line, high number scores and does it anyway the score has to be taken down: if on the prowl (a burglary), that's fine; if they have to go in strong (armed), that's fine too. And if you get in their way, that's got to be your problem. His lifestyle is obsessively functional. There's no steady woman or any encumbrance. Neil McCauley keeps it so there's nothing he couldn't walk from in 30 seconds flat.

Be warned: Michael Mann has a verbose style (Heat's 157 pages) - you want to write a lot tighter (your screenplay should be 95 to 110 pages). If you love being verbose, save it till you're established with a lot of sales behind you. Screenwriting is not novel writing.

Don't make your protagonist perfect

If your lead is perfect, your readers (and any audience) are going to find it hard to identify with them or emote to them. That`s going to make your script a very tough sell.

Make your characters real: give them demons, flaws, issues, weaknesses or failings.

Your storyline will of course put them on a collision course with their deepest weaknesses.

Such things make for great stories and great screenplays.

Nicholl Director talks screenplay characters

In a recent interview, Greg Beal, Director of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, said this about script characters:

GREG BEAL: For me, Graham Parker’s song title “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” should apply to every story. If the writer truly cares about her story, her characters and the moments of true feeling she’s conveying, it appears on the page and on screen. If she can make her characters live and laugh and survive, then I have the opportunity to live through them, feel with them and learn from them.

The Nicholl Fellowship advises on screenplay characters

The Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting has a wealth of excellent screenwriting advice on its website and Facebook page including:

Often paired with dialogue is characterization, the next item on our reader's criteria list.

Filling a screenplay with vivid, memorable characters will impress readers, especially when those characters are appropriate to the story, genre, setting and arena. Whether they're heroes or villains, protagonists or antagonists, leads or supporting, characters need to be intriguing; they need to capture an audience's attention.

In addition to assigning varying traits to your characters, differentiating them as appropriate by age, sex, appearance, jobs, etc., it's important to give all your central characters their own individual voices. You don't want your characters to sound alike when speaking dialogue. If the adults, teens and kids in your family comedy all seem to speaking in one voice, how will a reader be able to tell them apart?

One quick example before we wrap up. Consider "Midnight in Paris" (and if you haven't seen it, you should). Woody Allen fills his movie with a host of characters, drawn from real life and imagined, and he gives them their own distinctive voices and traits. Those lifted from history - Hemingway, Dali, Man Ray, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, etc. - are distinctive whenever they're on screen. So too are the fictional characters - the Woody Allen surrogate Gil, his fiancee Inez, the beautiful Adriana, the record stand woman Gabrielle and the time-traveling detective.

If you can bring your characters to life on the page through their dialogue and distinctive traits, you'll be a step closer to drawing readers anywhere and everywhere into the world of your screenplay.

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Related articles on this site

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Understand Character Arc

Character Intros

Put your Characters in the Worst Possible Situations

How to Write Great Dialogue

The Stakes: Set Them High

Drama and Conflict

Your Script Must Emote Well

External links

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Wikipedia: AFI's 100 Best Heroes & Villains

Wikipedia: Shawshank Redemption

Wikipedia: Forrest Gump

Wikipedia: American Beauty

AFF Interview: Greg Beal, Franklin Leonard and Matt Dy

Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition

Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting - Facebook page