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How to Develop Believable Characters in a Screenplay


If you lack character yourself, can you really give the world fascinating, engaging, deep, or heroic characters on the silver screen through your writing? Writers tend to be like every other sort of social group with various characteristics. How can you provide in your writing what is probably the most human and touching feature of your script---the characters you've created for your story?
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Stories are about people, and audiences will often respond to a film in proportion to how strongly they identify with the persons they see in front of them. We all know that films in which the characters seem flat, cliche, overly exaggerated, unrealistic, and unbelievable can be really tedious to watch. We want our film experiences to show us ourselves, among other things, and without fully developed characters, your writing will never really take flight in this way.

There are two solid approaches to the task of revealing and inventing screen characters. One is intuitive, and the other is more technical or method oriented.

On the intuitive side, the writer works as an observer of humanity, taking his cue from real people and distilling qualities and traits into a character type that becomes a fictional somebody for your story. You wouldn't likely want to write at all if you have no compassionate interest in human beings in general. By being aware of exactly what you're doing here, you wake up the innate facility you have within to identify with many types of people and bring your observations to your work. The world is full of alienation---but the writer looks at real people and temporarily bridges the gap between so many disparate and varied walks of life by inventing fictional portraits of humanity for his tales. It's not always easy, but it's definitely worthwhile.

So you might say: know your subject---which is humanity itself. Use everything you experience in your own life---relationships, people you meet or work with, types of people in the news---to reap the people knowledge you need here. You don't want to base your characters in your film on other fictional character types you see in films or on TV. This simply becomes incestuous and cliche. Instead, if you're writing about a criminal----for example, a bank robber---base your invented character on what you can observe or find out about real bank robbers. If you're writing about a star ship captain, create this character from what you can observe or find out about real modern submarine captains, or aircraft carrier captains, or jetliner pilots. The point is to let reality be your guide in the task of creating realistic characters. In this way the audience also believes the story and invests emotionally. It's intuitive and one of the higher callings of the storyteller.

Beyond this, what 'technical' tools do you have to bring these characters to life? By the time your work hits the screen, the actors and film director have added their skills. But all you have are words on a page. How is it done? Here are some techniques and guidelines for bringing your characters to life:

1. Reveal character through actions: your story is going to be made up of things happening to people or people doing things. Any character you wish to explore is revealed in those things that he does in the story---his actions. A heroic character takes heroic action, a sleazy character does sleazy things, etc. Be consistent in your sense of the character as you work through his or her actions and he'll start to take shape. If you have a 'bad guy,' take time in your story away to show us this person being cruel to a harmless small animal or cheating a child. Just a few moments of screen time with your protagonist, in some removed small situation (the big tough cop picks a flower in the park or the cheap hooker admires a Picasso painting), will settle character for the audience as things move forward with your plot.

2. Reveal character through dialogue: this is your second powerful tool. One agent said that a good way to examine your dialogue is to pull out every line a specific character says and look at them all together in comparison to the lines of other characters. Do all the characters sound the same---use the same tone, the same language? Take the time to get a sense of character by forming his or her words like a custom tailor makes a suit. A hot tempered character, a meek character, a stupid character, a cowardly character, a brave character---their lines of dialogue show the audience what they are like with each word, even if they're just ordering a pizza. Don't waste a single line of talk in your script.

3. Reveal character through story arc: specific moments, specific actions, and specific lines of dialogue tell us a lot. But you also have the trajectory of the character through the course of your entire story. Writers sometimes talk about 'character growth'---the idea that you show a change or that story events teach our characters something. But you might also include 'character lack of growth'---like the secondary character who is worse off at the end of your story than at the beginning. One character finds a pot of gold, one finds love, one finds a jail sentence; another character may seem lost and lonely for the entire tale. Place each character in the overall context of the story such that the outcome reveals his or her place in the cosmos.

4. Expose fakes, skewer arrogance, and strip away pretense: this is a big part of your job as a writer. Don't let your characters off too easy. Use the power of the pen to show the worst qualities of life's fakes: greedy businessmen, shallow gold diggers, arrogant pricks, and self righteous prudes. Take each scene to the most revealing moments you can devise. Show a person's faults, his foibles, and laughable mistakes. Spare no one. Leave no hypocrite undisturbed. It's a dirty job and sometimes too much fun, but someone's got to do it.

Overall, there's much more to be known about how to approach your story characters for a screenplay. Avoid cliche characters we've seen a hundred times, stay true to your own unique observations about people, and employ action, dialogue, and story elements to give the spark of life to your screenplay characters.
Writing comedy is as easy as falling off a log---into an alligator pool. For scripts and screenplays, there's only one rock bottom rule---no funny, no money. Every writer will have his own sensibility about humor, his own style, and his own topics. There's no doubt: modern films that call themselves comedy range from the infantile, to the toilet, to the bizarre, and back again. Anyone can argue that many of these are only marginally funny, but when audiences find a film that rocks the house with laughter, there are billions to be made. Writing good comedy is a talent that can't really be taught.

Instead, let's discuss how comedy writing fits into what we've talked about already in this syllabus---three-act plotting, revealing character, genres, etc. While humor appears organically, from your own pain or darkness or wherever you find it, the script and story will still need some basic, road map type features and controls that make the whole thing work cinematically.

For example, one of the worst mistakes you can make in writing comedy is to take your basic story (maybe a crime caper) and just assume that by giving your characters 'funny lines' (like humorous asides and bon-mot commentary) that this is the same as a comedy. You may have some kind of story (two guys rob a bank and head to Mexico), but if you merely add jokes throughout the script or one of the characters is just a 'funny guy' and is wise cracking throughout it all---that's not really a successful comedy. You can consider it a mistake if you try to do it that way. Both the crime caper story and the funny stuff suffer because neither is given its proper role.

In this sense, a comedy screenplay is more difficult than other forms. You have to be funny, but you also have to tell a story that hits all the same high points as a drama or action story.

For a lot of comedy, the plot or story on the screen should work like an old-fashioned Rube Goldberg contraption. You know---the little silver ball rolls down the chute, wakes up the bird in the bird cage, the bird shrieks and turns on a sound sensitive oven plate, heating a tea pot that shoots out hot steam, melting the wax that holds a string on a tense rubber band, that shoots a paper airplane with a message on it out the window and across the yard to your wife to tell her dinner is ready. Complex is good, and the funny parts are often physical---crashes, odd situations, cliffhangers, impossible moments, falls, stunts, etc.

The other 'organic' tool you have for comedy is character, especially if you're working with a specific actor. Funny is funny, and if you've got John Belushi, David Spade, Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams or Lucille Ball on your side, suddenly funny is hilarious. But those feelings arrive on the screen through the character and for your comedy script, the lead roles and the strong comedy will feature people in your story who have strong, well-defined, or unique personalities. This can mean many different things, but some examples might be the geek, the frat boy, the flaming homosexual, the hyper-feminist bitch, the dense street philosopher, the black sex machine (super-fly), the redneck, and on and on. These roles tend to be 'types' or cliches, but with comedy, it almost doesn't matter as long as you don't flaunt your own ignorance and biases. What you really want is a grasp of human nature that the audience can laugh at through the people types we all have seen in real life.

Another great help with comedy is the premise of your story. High concept works better with comedy than other types of stories. If you have a really funny 'story engine'---or the main concept that drives all the action---then the writing comes easy. Look at the 1980's comedy, 'Weekend at Bernie's.' Two college guys head to a party at a tough guy's house for the weekend---but when they get there, they find he's dead, maybe murdered by enemies. So they spend the rest of the film trying to convince everyone that Bernie is still alive---by dragging his corpse around like a mannequin or a ventriloquist's dummy. That premise is funny all by itself, but the writer then goes on with all these sequences where they have Bernie's body on a boat, having dinner, or propped up by the pool, etc. It's pretty funny stuff, but it all comes through in a natural way from the concept-- or the premise.

So when cooking up your comedy script, take a good look at the premise, to see if the plot and story will flow naturally into humorous situations from the main idea. With a strong, naturally funny premise, the humor comes easy.

There are other types of comedy stories as well, such as the 'ensemble comedy.' You may have seen 'Barbershop' (very well-written by Ice Cube) or 'Clerks' (by Kevin Smith). In each case, a large cast is assembled to portray quirky and idiosyncratic characters, dealing with 'real life' in a way that allows us to laugh along with them as they delve into the topics at hand---sex, crime, racism, religion, politics, etc. These can be really funny and work well for low-budget films---if your characters are unusual with some interesting things to say, you have some equally quirky sub-plots, and a you have a writer who is in his own flow of things making these rock the house. Why? It works because these are people we see every day, and now we see them in a new light, with their flaws and foibles exposed.

For an action comedy, use a Rube Goldberg plot with a danger-element, with an off-beat main character and a story that put us through the paces with lots of stunts and plot twists. For a romantic comedy, use less plot, and more angst and sex. If you're lucky a strong concept will move us wistfully into memories of our own spring love affairs. For satire, take a well-known ox and gore it, like a famous film, a famous person, an industry, sub-culture, etc.

Your comedy won't be funny if you don't enjoy it yourself. The best test of your work is to find yourself laughing while you write it---if it's truly funny to you, the writer, others will laugh too.

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