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Why do all the characters in your screenwriting sound the same?

18. “Earl Grey, hot”: Craft characters you can believe in

When you ask people to read your script aloud, does its sound like they’re reading a dishwasher instruction manual? Or, perhaps they sound like cardboard cutouts of people rather than the real thing. This happens a lot with writers just starting out.

There’s nothing worse than characters who sound like the voice from Google Maps (unless of course the character’s a robot). This happens entirely too often, but we have some tactics to get the ball rolling for creating realistic characters.

Talk to a real, 3D, actual human being

Let’s say one of your characters is a mother. Hang out in the same room as a mother, preferably one of a similar age to your character. Listen to how she speaks to her child, how she speaks to other people when her child is present, how she speaks about her child when it’s out of the room. Ask her questions about her life and see what impact having a child has had, both positive & negative. 

You can loosely base your character on this person if you like. However, if you value your relationship, don’t reveal this. You never know how they’ll react! (If she’s a horrible person, go ahead and tell her – screw it.) If you’re struggling to create realistic characters, basing them on real people can provide a base level of authenticity to work from.

Having researched all those nuances, language traits, and actions within a person, the audience will perceive the character as real. You’ll still need to use your imagination and improve the character to make the audience care. But it’s a great start. 

Audiences like to see a bit of themselves in characters. We want to believe it is us acting as the hero – we step into their shoes. The details you inject can be the catalyst to forge that familiar connection that makes your characters relatable. 

Free association: Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream

Another trick for making your characters unique: write a few pages of free association about the character. By free association, we mean just scribbling the first things that come to your head without putting any pressure whatsoever on yourself. 

You’ll be surprised what your brain can come up with. This tip can give you a starting point for building your character. Not all of it will be gold, but there will be things in there that are useful. 

Writing nothing at all because you think every idea just sucks is unfortunately a common issue. The free association method releases your mind from any repressive self doubt trying to thwart your efforts (every writer’s antagonist!). 

Have faith in your creative mind. Grab a pen and paper, and just go nuts! You can use the free association technique whenever no matter what you do, your characters just refuse to come to life.


If you’ve paid any attention to this lesson, you know the importance of characters’ richness and depth. Clear some space in your day, ‘cause the homework for this lesson is . . . shall we say, comprehensive. When it comes to character, there’s no such thing as too much detail.

Who is your protagonist?

Open your trusty notebook or note-taking software and delineate the following about your main character:

  1. First and last names
  2. Precise age
  3. Height
  4. Hair color / straight or curly / long or short / stylish or ordinary
  5. Always go to same barber, or cut it him/herself?
  6. Middle name – embarrassed about it? Does it mean something?
  7. Eye color
  8. Foot size
  9. Fat, thin or in-between? How so?
  10. Confident looking in the mirror?
  11. Care about his/her looks?
  12. Secret physical thing proud of & ashamed of
  13. Slob or tidy?
  14. Clothing fashion/style? Common clothing color(s)?
  15. Hat?
  16. Footwear
  17. Hand description
  18. Personal hygiene
  19. Parents alive?
  20. Mother’s maiden name
  21. Mother’s & father’s occupations
  22. Social class
  23. Wealth level & changes over lifetime & family’s before birth
  24. Happy or unhappy childhood?
  25. Favorite childhood toy
  26. Birthplace, childhood location
  27. Own room, or share?
  28. Childhood bedroom wall decorations
  29. Favorite place in the childhood home
  30. Backyard, frontyard? Describe.
  31. Any pets? Pet deaths?
  32. Favorite childhood/comfort food
  33. Successful at school academically, or struggle?
  34. Single-sex school or mixed?
  35. Mainly female or male friends?
  36. Any siblings? What ages? How were the relationships?
  37. Parents’ favorite sibling
  38. Prefer one parent to the other?
  39. Family: calm or lively? Creative?
  40. Strict parents?
  41. Suffered any abuse?
  42. Attractive as a teenager?
  43. Popular at school?
  44. Best / worst subject?
  45. Name of best friend
  46. Age when met this friend?
  47. Still friends?
  48. First kiss: first & last name
  49. Age at first kiss
  50. Still know first kiss partner?
  51. Age when virginity lost? Great / comic / letdown?
  52. Age left parents’ home, destination
  53. Any higher education?
  54. Close to family as an adult?
  55. Changed much since childhood?
  56. Feelings about sex now
  57. Political leanings
  58. Capital punishment pro/con?
  59. Vote history
  60. Favorite books
  61. Passions / hobbies
  62. First album purchased
  63. Social media use
  64. First job
  65. Spiritual beliefs & practices
  66. Fears & phobias
  67. Residential location & type
  68. Own/rent?
  69. Kitchen appearance
  70. Culinary skills
  71. Typical breakfast
  72. Favorite food
  73. Favorite drink (hot/cold)
  74. 5 things in fridge
  75. Morning or evening person?
  76. Fitness level & activities
  77. Health? Diseases? Disabilities?
  78. Medications
  79. Sleep quality / amount
  80. Favorite films & TV shows
  81. Heroes
  82. Typical evening activities
  83. Own a car? Bike? Other vehicles?
  84. Bed sheet color
  85. 3 adjectives a typical stranger would use to describe (first impression)
  86. Areas lacking talent / skill
  87. Desires for skills not possessed
  88. Cunning or honest?
  89. Situations for dishonesty
  90. Punctuality / lateness
  91. Concern level of others’ opinions (of character)
  92. Diligence / laziness
  93. What would this person’s recurring dream be about?
  94. Travelled widely? Where? With family, friends, or alone?
  95. Travel goals
  96. Diet – vegetarian etc.
  97. Alcohol, drug use?
  98. Phone screensaver
  99. Children / grandchildren / want children?
  100. Romantic relationships: history, present
  101. Romantic desires / goals / attitudes
  102. Countryside or the city?
  103. Worst failure
  104. Greatest strength not aware of
  105. Attitude toward money
  106. Bank account? Amounts?
  107. Other material wealth
  108. Tend to live in the present, past, future?
  109. Introvert or extrovert?
  110. Sense of humor
  111. Leader or follower?
  112. Typical behavior at parties
  113. Current friends
  114. Sports? Play/watch? Competitive?
  115. Musical aptitude: sing, play instrument?
  116. Ambitious? How so?
  117. Traits admired in others
  118. Seasickness?
  119. Worst habit
  120. Quirky habits
  121. Tan / pale / dark etc?
  122. Attitude towards death
  123. Ideal age of death
  124. Shames
  125. Attitude towards medicine, alternative medicine
  126. Mismatch between self-perception & reality (intelligence, charm, ability, etc.)
  127. Pajama description
  128. Bath or shower?
  129. Perfume / cologne / aftershave
  130. Others’ behavior that triggers offense to be taken
  131. Favorite charities?
  132. Swimming ability
  133. Wishes to be someone else?
  134. Most embarrassing situation ever
  135. Guilty pleasure song
  136. Feel he/she deserves to be happy?
  137. What causes him/her to feel vulnerable
  138. What would you say to this character right now to make them believe in his/her future?

Next step 

Still awake? Then it’s time to get writing. Own the second half of act two (Act 2B)!

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