How to Create Great Characters (not Stereotypes!)


Hidden Picture Visualization


Does your protagonist have to be likeable?

Did you like the godfather (the man, not the film)? Did you like Rick in “Casablanca” (at least for the first two-thirds of the film)? How about Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane”? On the TV side, how about the protagonists in “Damages” and “The Shield”? Probably not, but odds are you found them fascinating. If your script makes us want to see what happens next to the protagonist, that’s enough.

Does there always have to be a villain?

Obviously if you’re writing a flick in which terrorists are trying to blow up the world or a serial killer is stalking your detective, you’ll need a good bad guy. But many of the most interesting pictures look at how we can be our own worst enemy, or how we have to battle our circumstances ( for instance, “The Full Monty”, “Annie Hall”, “Citizen Kane”).

These films are harder to write because they don’t fit as easily into structural formulas and they ask the writer to look more deeply into himself or herself. They can be tougher to sell because they don’t appeal to the youngest audiences. However, when they work they are the kinds of movies that stick in people’s minds for years. The same is true of TV characters at times—Vic in “The Shield” has different opponents over the course of the series, but ultimately he’s his own worst enemy and that’s also true of Patty Hughes in “Damages.”

Do you have to write full character biographies?

William Goldman

For some writers, having an exact road map for their script and knowing everything about their characters is extremely helpful. For others, it takes all the creative joy out of writing. As much as most of us are curious about how others write (longhand or on a laptop, mornings or evenings, etc.), the fact remains that each of us has to find our own way.

For example, I have found that getting to know my characters via visualisations is a hundred times more effective than writing character bios—but it might not work that way for you. William Goldman said, in reference to what makes a picture successful, “nobody knows anything.”  Similarly, nobody knows the best way for you to write a script. Experimentation is the best way forward and in this endeavour as in all others, there is room for innovation.

(You’ll find more information about creating great characters, in my book “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other online and offline retailers. Also be sure to sign up for my free Screenwriting Success newsletter, using the sign-up box on the top right of the home page.)