Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
Did a lecture for a Chicago Screenwriting Meetup.Com group recently. The topic was character development and I had a grand total of fifty minutes on the subject. I started talking for 49 minutes 49 seconds and didn’t stop (three cheers to McDonald’s for their large $1 iced-tea caffeine mainline. Excellent product!) Here are a few of those strategies to help you with character development, down and dirty, Meetup.Com-style.
- BEEF UP CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS
The character description is the first thing the actor playing the role sees. Don’t forget the importance of nailing down that character description. Go for the visual essence of the character. Ask yourself: How does “she has brown hair and wears jeans” get to the core of the character? How does telling me they’re “average-height” help? Stop using weak adjectives like “slightly fat”? If the character is fat, freakin’ say it.
Don’t give me three lines of description about the tan 24 year-old STARBUCKS BARISTA, just graduated from Film School, looking awesome after his P-98 workout with his new tribal tattoo, who also has one scene and zero lines in your script. No description for the barista, folks.
- NOT ALL CHARACTERS GET NAMES
I read in Aaron Sorkin’s Workshop that he likes giving even small characters names. Sorry to disagree with the master, but why?
If you give a character a name I, as a reader, assume they they have some story significance. Characters should only get names if they play into story or have multiple scenes.
If not, try to give them a non-name that indicates physicality or personality. If, going back to Starbucks, we’ve got a one-time-only character serving that vanilla latte, that character can be HUNKY BARISTA or TATTOOED BARISTA, fine–just no name!
A student gave me one recently where two hot women bracketed our hero at a nightclub. Now, you could name them WOMAN 1 and 2, anyone could do that. How to make them memorable? You might call them what my student did: POTENTIAL SKANK 1 and 2. Not PC, but too bad. Get a laugh out of the reader on a small moment like this, your script might actually sell.
- BE A WAITRESS SCENE HATER
Can you tell me why I need the Hunky Barista at all? Why do I need a Slinky Waitress? Even worse, why does the Slinky Waitress need dialogue?
I am a waitress dialogue hater. Good Reader, c’mon, can you really justify the chit-chat as she drops off water, takes a menu order or drops off food? How does it impact plot or character? Why is it essential to story? How about picking up the scene after the food has arrived.
Here’s how you’ll get stronger as a writer. Do this every scene: Get in late, get out early. Meaning start scenes as late as possible and get out of them as fast as possible. Identify what you need to get done in a scene. Get it done. If the scene can open with coffee already served and in front of the characters, do it. If the barista can hand off coffee without dialogue, he should.
- BEWARE SIMILAR NAMES
Avoid same letter/same length character names. This has the potential to confuse the reader. Got a Jake and John– two single-syllable J names? Change one. Mix up the length. It’s not Jake and John–it’s more like Ike and Williford. Well, OK…maybe not Williford.
- CHARACTER AS DEVICE
There are characters that aren’t characters at all. Characters can be used as devices. To advance plot. To advance theme. To advance character development. For instance…
INT. DINER- NIGHT
Leading Lady and Leading Man at a booth. She rises and heads off toward the bathroom.
Slinky Waitress approaches table, serves apple pie with whip cream, smiles flirty to Leading Man. His lady not there, Leading Man flirts back.
Leading Lady stops, doubles back for her purse, sees Leading Man flirt. She says nothing. Heads toward the bathroom in silence.
You establish the Leading Man as a cheating slimebag without a line of dialogue. You need the Waitress scene, in this case, because it helps define character. This will, in turn, define action and plot later in the story. Another brick in the wall.
- ZIG WHEN THEY EXPECT THE ZAG
Never trust the first solution. Meaning: Clichés. When it comes to characters, you want the fresh, the original, the unexpected. You want to zig when the reader expects to zag.
What if the best line in the scene is uttered by the Third Guy on the left? Or by a character we never see again? Preston Sturges did this better than anyone. For instance, in Unfaithfully Yours, a minor character we never see before or after gets to speak the immortal line: “Nobody handles Handel better than you handle Handel!”
- KNOW THY BACKSTORY
It might not make it into the actual screenplay, but knowing character backstory is a wise investment of time. Backstory = everything that happens to the character before the movie starts. Backstory impacts character dialect and dialogue: The sound of the character; how they talk, the content of their mind.
It impacts worldview: Education, intelligence or non-intelligence. Prejudices, likes, dislikes, hates. The recent An Education did a wonderful job showing how a 16 year-old girl (Carrie Mulligan) could fall for an older, charismatic man (Peter Sarsgaard). We don’t get 16 years of humble origins. We don’t need it. The few scenes at the top of the movie indicate her humble origins. We get it. She’s ripe for the experience of meeting this exciting man who sweeps her off her feet.
It impacts motivation: In LA Confidential, the Russell Crowe character watched his father beat his mother to death. We never see this. It’s backstory, happens before the movie begins. But his hatred for violence done to women impacts—to the core—who the Crowe character, and thus the entire movie. Here’s the first time his character Bud meets Kim Basinger’s Lynn, his hatred of men beating women directly impacts story:
EXT. HOLLYWOOD LIQUOR - NIGHT Bud exits with his booze, heads for the car. Something catches his eye. A woman in the rear passenger seat of a new Cadillac. SUSAN LEFFERTS. Both her eyes are black. Bud starts over. The case on his hip, he motions for her to roll down the window. The driver's side door opens and bodyguard TURNER "BUZZ" MEEKS menaces his way out. MEEKS Get lost why don't you? Meeks stops short as Bud shoves his badge in Meeks' face. Setting the case on the car's hood, Bud spins Meeks around, pats him down. He finds a .38 in a shoulder holster... BUD You okay? Beside her, a man leans over. Pierce Patchett, seen before at the freeway unveiling, is a man used to being chauffeured. Like FDR, he smokes his cigarette in a holder. PATCHETT She's fine. BUD (menacing) I'm not asking you. Patchett has no idea he's walking on thin ice. As he stares impatiently at Bud, Bud looks back to Susan. BUD Somebody hit you? LYNN It's not what you think.
- DOES GRAVITY APPLY? THE BOWLING BALL TEST
How real are the characters you’re creating? Does gravity apply? Try the bowling ball test: If I drop a bowling ball on the character’s foot, in your world, will it hurt? What I’m asking is: If you say your world is the real world, then you’re characters must behave like people in the real world, under real world laws and constructs. I—or any reader at a prodco/screenwriting competition/agency—will have a hard time reading, believing, or caring about your characters if we don’t buy them, if there is no plausibility.
Do your best to make your characters plausible. Use the bowling ball test. Unless it’s a David Lynch world, then all bets are off.
- WHEN THE POV CHARACTER ISN’T THE PROTAGONIST
Want to shake things up in your script? Looking for a new angle on character development? Consider changing the Point-Of-View.
What if your POV Character isn’t your Protagonist? This can be a fascinating twist, if done well. Consider a movie like Road To Perdition. The story is told through the son’s eyes, but the movie is about the Tom Hanks character.
- JUSTIFY EVERY SUBPLOT CHARACTER
Subplot characters must be justified. With Final Draft software you can run Character Reports. Examine every character in your movie—check the full arcs. Break them down. See if there’s growth that justifies their existence. See if they impact story line. Are they needed?
Think of your movie as the Mississippi River. Subplot characters are tributary rivers. They must feed, and be fed, by the Mississippi. Don’t burden the reader with excessive subplot characters.
Be wary of spending time with secondary—and tertiary—characters. Don’t become infatuated with them in Act 2 and lose sight of your protagonist. Never forget who your protagonist is, and what the movie is really about.