IMPROVISING SCREENPLAYS: The 5 Keys to Creating Great Characters

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script.

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You have a clear picture in your head of your main character. Great. You know what your protagonist has to do throughout the story. Fantastico! But what’s the motor driving her? What basic, primal character element is the essential force pushing her through every moment of your script?

Crickets…crickets…annnd…crickets.

Let me explain what I mean.IMPROVISING SCREENPLAYS: The 5 Keys to Creating Great Characters by Brett Wean | Script Magazine

When an improviser walks on stage, for instance – I’m going to use an improv example since this is, after all, the Improvising Screenplays column – she probably doesn’t know yet exactly who her character is. It gets fleshed out, hopefully, after the first few moments of the scene, as the who, what, and where become apparent. But the actor needs to arm herself with something powerful to launch off with. There are a few different angles she can consider when creating her character…and they can all be used to help define and refine the characters in your scripts, too.

Here are the five essential character elements to consider:

EMOTION
Is there a better opening visual image than that of Bridget Jones, alone in her bedroom, getting drunk, and sadly half-singing “All By Myself?” (Probably, but shut up, I love this one.)

What’s the overriding emotion of your character? In Bridget Jones’ Diary, we have a protagonist who is driven by her sadness – more specifically, her loneliness. Practically every scene is viewed and experienced through that prism. Her primary emotion helps lead her to every major decision throughout the film. It can also be viewed as the biggest obstacle she has to overcome by film’s end.

Actors walking out onstage without a script have more than enough when they arm themselves simply with a strong emotion to start off. You could do worse than to choose one for your lead character.

POINT OF VIEW
Some characters have an overriding attitude: a fully fleshed-out way of looking at the world. This POV drives their every move, and their every emotional reaction to things that they encounter throughout movie.

Bud Cort as Harold, or Ruth Gordon as Maude, in Hal Ashby’s great Harold and Maude, for instance. Harold likes to set up pretend suicide attempts for himself, to freak out his mom, get some attention, and express his feelings. He’s obsessed with death and likes to go to stranger’s funerals. He may not completely understand what’s driving his fascination with death…but it compels him.

Maude, on the other hand – while she also enjoys looking on at other people’s funerals (that’s how they meet) – views the circle of life as positive, and beautiful. There is a sadness to her – there is a very quick, heartbreaking reveal midway through the film of a concentration camp number on her arm – but she has fully embraced life, and its endpoint, death, for all of its beauty. She has embraced the world, and this attitude and point of view drive her – her actions, and reactions – throughout the film, as they serve as a counterpoint to Harold’s.

STATUS
Onstage, even if a scene isn’t overtly about status, improvisers can view their relationship with every other character in terms of status: social, economic, who’s smarter, who’s prettier, who’s more powerful, who’s better at chess…the list goes on.

Think about the Disney movie Aladdin. Our introduction to the character is status-based, as he (and his monkey) steal some food. As he gets chased by the baddies, we get to know who he is, how he thinks, and how he problem-solves, all through the prism of status. His status exists not just in relation to other characters, but also in relation to his society, and the world around him.

Status is also very central in virtually every Woody Allen film. Woody almost always plays a nebbish, not nearly as cool or debonair or tough as virtually anyone else around him. This naturally drives most of the humor, and serves as his obstacle.

In the teen masterpiece (well, I think so) Some Kind of Wonderful, the holy trinity of Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Lea Thompson all exist in relation to each other, and their world, in terms of status. Status helps to define each of their characters. Status is an important element in many teen movies. But this one has a cool girl drummer. So I’ll stick with this one.

PHYSICALITY
Some characters emerge primarily from their physicality: the way they look, and the unique manner in which they move through space. This is an especially effective way to introduce a character within a script, when appropriate. Sometimes the way a character exists physically, within the universe of the film, informs everything about your story.

Take Bane (please!), from The Dark Knight Rises. That helmet. The sheer immensity of his physical stature within the frame. That quasi-Dracula voice. Yikes. Nuff said.

Or what about Chaplin’s Tramp character? Think about the way he moves. He is constantly physically at play with every object, inanimate and human, with which he comes into contact.

Is your character in command, physically, of everything she encounters? Thinking about your character in terms of her physical relationship with everything else on screen is an effective way to help inform and define who she is, and more fully flesh out the different little moments of your story.

WANT/NEED
This may seem pretty obvious, but what does your protagonist want most in life? Is there any more essential question?

Maybe your character wants love. (Bridget Jones.) Maybe he wants respect. (Taxi Driver, Scarface.) Maybe he wants fame. (The King of Comedy.) In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman wants to make it as an actor, but on his own terms. He’s more concerned with art than fame. He played an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.

On a more primal basis, what does your character need? In Die Hard, Bruce Willis needs to save his wife and her coworkers from the terrorists who’ve taken over their office building. In Taken, Liam Neeson needs to save his daughter from kidnappers. In Independence Day, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum have to save the Earth from destruction by aliens.

What’s your protagonist’s primary want or need? What are they willing to do to get it? What will happen if they don’t succeed, and how does that drive them? This often tells you everything you need to know about them.

THE FIVE ESSENTIAL KEYS

So we’ve got Emotion…Point of View….Status…Physicality…Want and Need. What’s the primary driver for your main character? If you have answers for all five, congratulations: you’ve probably got a well-rounded, fully developed protagonist. But even if you just start with one…you’re off to the races.

Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter. They’ll be considered for a future installment.

Download the 4 Crucial Questions for Your Protagonist to learn what is a protagonist character who can build a solid story!

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