Creating Compelling Characters: Asking Your Characters Why

The biography work you do on your primary characters is essential to creating compelling characters. Sally B. Merlin explains how more you know, the more they’ll know.


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The biography work you do on your primary characters is essential to creating compelling characters. Sally B. Merlin explains how more you know, the more they'll know.

I have, by all accounts, an unconventional approach to helping writers write their screenplays. I believe my unconventional approach mainly has to do with my passion for experiencing and celebrating the personal growth of writers more than my desire to make money in this business. Knowing my limitations and goals within the creative community allows me the luxury of focusing on the elements of this craft that mean the most to me; enables me to do my job; to infuse my passion for writing with yours.

I believe that personal growth is essential for creative evolution. As you create, you are able to delve deeper into your personal character; and this journey helps you to create rich and memorable characters.

This is why the biography work you do on your primary characters is essential. The more you know, the more they’ll know. This biography is not a piece of homework, but a skill.


Character Evolution – Therapy for Your Character


When you begin to write about your people, the key is to write your own history first. Make a point to pay attention to the recurring characteristics that emerge from this history. Now, what you have are the characteristics you are an authority on. For example, if you had been teased as a child, you would know how that felt. If you were given everything under the sun, you’ll know about dependence; and all that comes along with that sense of entitlement.

Take these pieces from your past and see if there is a theme. How do they connect? Are there similarities? Write about what you discovered during this process. By this time, you will have realized that there are certain characters that you know better than others because they are part of your intuitive self.

The next step is to gather this information and begin to fictionalize a person for your story. Don’t try to write this person’s history from the beginning of her life. Stick to the recent past and, by all means, ask questions. Hundreds of “Why” questions.

  • Has this person been successful in relationships? Why?
  • What is their relationship with their co-workers? Why?
  • What are the jobs they’ve held in the past? Why?
  • Whom do they trust? What kind of friend are they? Why?

Each “Why” question will lead to another, and another. The result will be a flurry of answers that will begin to help orchestrate your story.


Finding Your Character’s Wounds


Biography work is usually perceived as tedious; but the truth is that if you don’t know your characters well enough, who else will? Movies are about people—great, interesting, unique people (oh, by the way, that would be YOU). It’s been my experience that the more you are willing to grow off the page, the larger your canvas will be on the page. After all, you are not the same person you were two years ago, or a year, or even six months ago. You’ve grown. Therefore your writing has grown.

As you change, so have your characters. Their voices will be different. They’ll do different things. They’ll demand from you a deeper level of commitment.

There are no easy outs in writing. It’s a job—a demanding and most difficult job. It’s important to define your level of commitment before you dig in. Writing an in-depth biography of your characters is your commitment to them and to your own writing.

Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2003

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