Screenwriting tips for creating compelling characters

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One of the most important jobs of the screenwriter is to write good characters. Not good as in well-behaved; good as in interesting to watch. Characters are what anchor the viewers in the world of the movie, keeping them connected even when things are fantastical or literally out-of-this-world. Here are four screenwriting tips for creating compelling characters. 


Make your character likable early in the story


Acclaimed screenwriting guru Blake Snyder feels so strongly about this point that his entire methodology–Save the Cat–is named after this moment in the script, when your character does something so admirable that the audience can’t help but root for them. Snyder advises that you have your protagonist save a cat, or a person, literally or figuratively. This narrative device will help you get the audience on their side early in the story and will buy you a lot of leeway later on. This tip works even if you have a less-than-likable protagonist; showing off their human side early in the story gives the audience someone to root for even when they’re being, well, less-than-likable.


Understand your character fully


There’s nothing more irritating in screenwriting than a flat, one-dimensional character that only serves to push the narrative along. As the screenwriter, it’s your job to give your character nuance in order to make them compelling to watch on screen. Make it your business to understand their moral code, their wants, their needs, and how all of these things conflict with each other. Give them interests, hobbies, and relationships outside of the story; even if all of these things don’t get mentioned in the script, it will make them more dynamic. If you as the writer really understand your character, your dialogue will reflect that, and it will make it clear they have a rich inner life. Maybe this is a little woo-woo of me, but I like to know what my character’s astrological signs are so that I can assign them different traits, skills, and priorities. This won’t work for every writer, so be thoughtful about what other little tricks you can have up your sleeve as you’re creating your character.


Create characters with agency


This goes back to not creating characters simply in service of the plot. Remember, the characters should drive the story, not the other way around. The audience wants to see characters acting, not just reacting to their unfortunate circumstances. Yes, of course things are going to happen to the characters, but more often than not they should be acting on the world around them, making decisions and creating change in their world. This doesn’t have to be huge, earth-shattering stuff, but even on a small scale, your audience should see your characters making decisions, acting on them, and then facing the consequences. 


Journal as your character


This tip is a little more practical and hands-on than the others. Get in the habit of writing journal entries as your character. Write in the first person, and don’t worry about making them pretty, well-written, or even legible; these journal entries are for your eyes only. Write about a situation in the script and really have your character parse through how they feel about it. This will allow you to get in their head, work out exactly how they might react on-page, and give you insight into their thought process. 


What other things would you say are key screenwriting tips for creating compelling characters? Get in touch and let us know!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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