Some writers start with an interesting character and then create a story around them. But sometimes, your strongest initial element is your premise and plot and it’s the characters that are not coming so easily.
Writers use all sorts of tools to create and develop characters, often using different methods for different projects. As long as you end up with a compelling, memorable character, it doesn’t matter how you get there. If you’re feeling a bit stuck there are lots of ways you can try; it’s all about finding character development tools that work for you.
The most common source of character inspiration is right in front of you. So many times, when I’ve read a script in which one of the characters really leaps off the page, the writer tells me “Yeah, she’s based on this woman I used to work with.” Family, friends, colleagues can all inspire characters for your story. Whether you lift them pretty much as they are, or you take just one of their character traits and then change the rest, looking at the many different characters in your own life is a great place to start.
Many writers are inspired by Christopher Vogler’s approach to characters as the embodiment of their story role; the Hero, Mentor, Antagonist, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, Trickster. This can be a useful tool, although there is a superficiality to this approach that, unless you do a lot of additional development, might leave you with pretty sketchy characters that don’t feel real. I’d personally recommend using Vogler’s character archetypes as a way of refining already well developed characters so that their story function has clarity and purpose.
Sometimes, no matter how much you search around you, the character ideas just won’t come, or what comes doesn’t feel like a real person you can have a conversation with in your head. Until your character is talking to you, you’ve probably still got some work to do.
Psychology and personality theories have always fascinated me, and they can be an incredibly useful tool in the screenwriter’s character development tool box. Over on my Script Angel blog screenwriter and business psychologist Phil Lowe has written a fantastic series of articles on psychology as a tool for screenwriters. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some of the approaches that Phil and I have found helpful when developing characters.
One of the oldest personality theories goes right back to the Ancient Greeks – the idea that the human race can be divided into four temperaments; The Guardian (dependable, loyal, hard working), The Artisan (spontaneous, playful, impulsive), The Idealist (intuitive, philosophical, intense), The Rational (problem-solvers, seekers of knowledge).
What drives your character? Do they want to Be Perfect (Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada), Please People, Hurry Up, Be Strong (Carolyn in American Beauty) or Try Hard (Elle in Legally Blonde)? What motivates your character? The Strengths Deployment Inventory is a questionnaire which assesses people according to their motivational value system – we all want to feel worthwhile about ourselves but we all go about it in different ways. Is your character ‘Blue / Altruistic-Nurturing’ or ‘Red / Assertive-Directing’ or ‘Green / Analytic-Autonomising’? And you don’t have to be obvious in your choices; action hero McLane (Die Hard) is interesting because he’s actually Blue. He’s motivated not by a desire to beat the competition but by a desire to mend a broken relationship. And making sure that your characters are different in their motivations can give you plenty of scope for conflict and drama.
How do your characters interact? The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behaviour assesses a character’s preferences for Inclusion, Control and Affection. Getting even more specific, you can develop your characters in relation to how they deal with conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory assesses how assertive or co-operative a person is when faced with a situation in which their needs, opinions or goals differ from someone else’s. Are they competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating? You can also build characters as distinct from one another according to their emotional intelligence.
Then there is the famous Myer-Briggs personality test, based on Jungian theory. It assesses character based on Introversion (I) vs Extraversion (E), Intuition (I) vs Sensing (S), Thinking (T) vs Feeling (F) and Judging (J) vs Perceiving (P). The combinations of these responses give you 16 basic personality types. There is a great example of fictional characters assessed using Myer Briggs here.
Screenwriting guru Laurie Hutzler has developed a mode of defining characters in nine personality types; Power of Conscience, Power of Idealism, Power of Truth, Power of Love, Power of Reason, Power of Will, Power of Ambition and Power of Imagination.
It’s worth taking a closer look at those that most interest you and giving them a try. Some writers prefer more interactive character development tools, like workshopping characters with actors. In the UK actor groups like The Watermark Collective offer this service for a small fee, and if you’re plugged into your regional acting groups this could be another useful character development tool.
Whichever method resonates with you, give it a go. And if you’ve got your own character development tricks and tips we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
- More articles by Hayley McKenzie
- Character Development Fundamentals to Create Characters Actors Want to Play
- Writers Wrap Up: Character Development in Storytelling
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