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:
- First and last names
- Precise age
- Hair color / straight or curly / long or short / stylish or ordinary
- Always go to same barber, or cut it him/herself?
- Middle name – embarrassed about it? Does it mean something?
- Eye color
- Foot size
- Fat, thin or in-between? How so?
- Confident looking in the mirror?
- Care about his/her looks?
- Secret physical thing proud of & ashamed of
- Slob or tidy?
- Clothing fashion/style? Common clothing color(s)?
- Hand description
- Personal hygiene
- Parents alive?
- Mother’s maiden name
- Mother’s & father’s occupations
- Social class
- Wealth level & changes over lifetime & family’s before birth
- Happy or unhappy childhood?
- Favorite childhood toy
- Birthplace, childhood location
- Own room, or share?
- Childhood bedroom wall decorations
- Favorite place in the childhood home
- Backyard, frontyard? Describe.
- Any pets? Pet deaths?
- Favorite childhood/comfort food
- Successful at school academically, or struggle?
- Single-sex school or mixed?
- Mainly female or male friends?
- Any siblings? What ages? How were the relationships?
- Parents’ favorite sibling
- Prefer one parent to the other?
- Family: calm or lively? Creative?
- Strict parents?
- Suffered any abuse?
- Attractive as a teenager?
- Popular at school?
- Best / worst subject?
- Name of best friend
- Age when met this friend?
- Still friends?
- First kiss: first & last name
- Age at first kiss
- Still know first kiss partner?
- Age when virginity lost? Great / comic / letdown?
- Age left parents’ home, destination
- Any higher education?
- Close to family as an adult?
- Changed much since childhood?
- Feelings about sex now
- Political leanings
- Capital punishment pro/con?
- Vote history
- Favorite books
- Passions / hobbies
- First album purchased
- Social media use
- First job
- Spiritual beliefs & practices
- Fears & phobias
- Residential location & type
- Kitchen appearance
- Culinary skills
- Typical breakfast
- Favorite food
- Favorite drink (hot/cold)
- 5 things in fridge
- Morning or evening person?
- Fitness level & activities
- Health? Diseases? Disabilities?
- Sleep quality / amount
- Favorite films & TV shows
- Typical evening activities
- Own a car? Bike? Other vehicles?
- Bed sheet color
- 3 adjectives a typical stranger would use to describe (first impression)
- Areas lacking talent / skill
- Desires for skills not possessed
- Cunning or honest?
- Situations for dishonesty
- Punctuality / lateness
- Concern level of others’ opinions (of character)
- Diligence / laziness
- What would this person’s recurring dream be about?
- Travelled widely? Where? With family, friends, or alone?
- Travel goals
- Diet – vegetarian etc.
- Alcohol, drug use?
- Phone screensaver
- Children / grandchildren / want children?
- Romantic relationships: history, present
- Romantic desires / goals / attitudes
- Countryside or the city?
- Worst failure
- Greatest strength not aware of
- Attitude toward money
- Bank account? Amounts?
- Other material wealth
- Tend to live in the present, past, future?
- Introvert or extrovert?
- Sense of humor
- Leader or follower?
- Typical behavior at parties
- Current friends
- Sports? Play/watch? Competitive?
- Musical aptitude: sing, play instrument?
- Ambitious? How so?
- Traits admired in others
- Worst habit
- Quirky habits
- Tan / pale / dark etc?
- Attitude towards death
- Ideal age of death
- Attitude towards medicine, alternative medicine
- Mismatch between self-perception & reality (intelligence, charm, ability, etc.)
- Pajama description
- Bath or shower?
- Perfume / cologne / aftershave
- Others’ behavior that triggers offense to be taken
- Favorite charities?
- Swimming ability
- Wishes to be someone else?
- Most embarrassing situation ever
- Guilty pleasure song
- Feel he/she deserves to be happy?
- What causes him/her to feel vulnerable
- What would you say to this character right now to make them believe in his/her future?
Still awake? Then it’s time to get writing. Own the second half of act two (Act 2B)!