Your audience will judge your characters

When you create the characters in your screenplay, you probably have a good idea of how you want the audience to react to them, but are you doing everything you can to ensure you get the results you want?

Maybe you’ve seen the somewhat terrifying research that suggests that we make up our minds about people within a few seconds of meeting them. Not minutes—seconds!

That applies to your characters as well. Of course ultimately a lot of the audience’s reaction will be based on the actor and to some degree the way he or she has been directed, but even more of the responsibility rests with you.

What do you have your characters doing and saying the first time we see or hear them? Are you stopping to consider what kind of impression that will make and whether or not it’s the one you want us to have?

How subtle (or not) you are in planting your character’s qualities depends on you and what kind of film it is. The big action pictures paint with broad strokes. Sometimes that extends to dealing in stereotypes.

David Thewlis as the nasty landlord

One example: the landlord in the film version of War Horse.  The way he’s dressed, the fact that he’s surrounded by yes-men, his expression and of course the way he treats the people who farm his land all tell us he’s a bad ‘un. The only thing he doesn’t do is twirl his moustache. And if the officer who bought the horse had been any nobler he would have been declared a saint on the spot. That doesn’t make it wrong (I’m sure Mr Spielberg will be relieved to hear this…)–it’s a movie that goes for big emotions, not subtlety.

It’s hard for us to be objective about these things when it comes to our own work, so here’s a suggestion: give a friend or colleague only the first two pages on which you introduce an important character. Ask them to read those couple of pages and tell you what they think the character is like.

Naturally you don’t expect or even want characters to reveal all of their facets the first time we see them, and in some cases you may even want to have a character who is hiding his or her true nature. Even then, usually a bit of subtle foreshadowing is a good idea—not big enough to register at the time, but enough that when the audience looks back they realize there was a clue to this person’s real nature from the start.