While plots most be original and compelling, characters are the key to every great movie. Your characters are the emotional core of your story. It is through them that your audience engages and experiences the world you have created.
To write great characters you must know them and understand them. They must live in your imagination and have unique voices, each their own.
Once they you have created and defined these characters, with backstories and future stories, how do you get your audience to understand and empathize with your characters as much as you do?
Here are some tips you can use to make sure that your characters leap off the page and grab your readers imagination:
1. Define Your Character’s Broad Stroke
An audience meets a character just like they meet a person in real life: with a first reaction. Unless it’s via phone or text, we see a person first. Then we speak with them.
We form an opinion based on how they appear. Then we refine it based on what we learn from interacting with them. It’s the same with characters in a movie.
As an audience observes them, they learn new details that add to their initial impression. If your characters are clearly defined, each new impression will focus and refine what the audience already knows.
This analysis and definition of a character is part of our instincts as humans. In other words, an audience will unconsciously do this — whether you provide them with sufficient information or not.
As the writer, you want your reader to arrive at the opinion of your characters that you intend. To do that, you must curate your reader’s opinion.
To shape your reader’s first impression of your character, start by defining your character’s “Broad Stroke.” In life, everyone has a broad stroke. It is the way we generally carry ourselves through the world. It’s our attitude about life. It’s the way we embrace our environment and the people who surround us.
For each character in your script, this will be represented by a Point of View and an attitude about the world of your script. Your characters may be god-fearing, agoraphobic, optimistic, deceitful, etc. Any adjective will do.
To define the overarching trait for each of your characters, complete this sentence:
“Most of the time, my character will act like ____________ .”
In Act One, whenever your character acts or speaks, your character should start with this attitude. It is who they are and how they operate.
In Acts Two and Three, this attitude will start to change as they are affected by the events in your story. But in the beginning, you want to be consistent and clear.
Adding to that first impression, write a specific and stylish sentence that introduces each character. Especially your main character. Take time to craft it so that it says exactly what you want. Use it in your script to make your reader have the first impression of your characters that you want them to have.
Throughout Act One, once you’ve introduced your main character, reiterate this sense of your character. Show it to your reader through both dialogue and action. Do it often and consistently, without being redundant.
2. Find the Paradox
All good characters have a paradox within them that speaks to a greater inner life. This is what makes good characters into fascinating ones.
When choosing a paradox, do not make it complicated and do not have more than one. This is the shadow side of your character’s broad stroke. You don’t want to clutter it with more than one idea.
Once you’ve decided on the paradox, you have to decide when to reveal it.
It may come early to give the character complexity. It may come late to give the character added depth and deepen the story at a point when it starts to lag. Or it may come near the end as a big reveal.
When and how you reveal this paradox will have a profound effect on how your reader sees your character. And it must come out in a way that feels natural and honest, or it will not be believable.
3. Pick Your Character’s Signature Traits
Give your character specific habits and tics.
– They can be verbal: specific word choice, a catch phrase or style of speaking.
– They can be appearance – how they dress.
– They can be behaviors and actions that are habitual.
– They can be a recurring response to stress.
Be consistent and generous with the traits you’ve chosen for your characters. Repeat them throughout the script.
Once you’ve defined your characters and presented them so that your reader forms the opinion you want, how do you keep your reader interested in them?
Next, we’ll look at how four tips that will help you deepen your reader’s experience of your characters and keep your reader hooked through to the end of your story!