The plot of your story flows from the actions of your characters. These characters can be larger than life, they can be total nobodies – but an important thing is that they feel human. The way to go about this is through character development both before you write your first word on the page and during the story itself. Without characters who feel well rounded and developed, we’re looking at story devoid of life and texture. So without further ado here are a few quick tips on how to develop your characters so they come to life on your page.
The Character ABCD Journey
If a screenplay is made up of three acts (and eight sequences) then your character’s journey should not be one note either. I’ve always commended the type of storytelling that takes a character across several beats in the same way a good story structure takes its plot along with three acts. Basic character development is getting your character from their starting point, Point A, to their endpoint, Point B. But in my mind, that’s often too basic and doesn’t reflect the complexities and development of psychology that we humans go through. People don’t suddenly go from righteous hero to corrupt anti-hero in one quick snap. It’s a gradual breakdown of their morals over time, the kind that might be so subtle that they don’t even realise how far they’ve fallen.
Instead I like to take characters through four points, with some highs and lows, and show their progression by mapping out their Journey from Point A to Point B then Point B to Point C and finally Point C to Point D. If you map out precisely where you want your characters to develop and grow across these four beats then naturally you’ll come to realise their journey over time doesn’t have to be a sudden change but a more human and natural development.
Twenty Pieces of Useless Information
A great piece of advice and one I follow to this day is to write down twenty piece of useless information about the character. This is the kind of stuff that isn’t necessarily important to the plot or even to their character growth but by putting writing down twenty pieces of useless information about the character it will naturally imbue them with a little more life when it comes time to the actual writing process. Let me show you what I mean.
Here is a sample piece I used for a character from a Fantasy screenplay I wrote. Now originally this character was basically just “fantasy Han Solo rogue-type” but through writing down these twenty pieces of useless information, certainly lines of dialogue for them changed, their actions in the script changed and sometimes they’d be doing something in the background that was completely unrelated to the script but showed a side of then that wasn’t present before giving extra layers to the character.
Suddenly his love of pie meant every time they were in a tavern, I have him shovelling ridiculous amounts of it down his mouth, with the rest of the party of heroes wondering how someone so in shape managed to scoff down so much pie. It had nothing to do with the plot, but that’s not "story". The story is the characters and when your characters have quirks and layers, they become that much more interesting to your audience. Give them an accent, a favourite food, favourite colour, their fashion style, do they have any brothers or sisters, what was the relationship with the parents like, all these ideas will develop your character naturally giving them a personality you designed as you write.
Goals and Motivations
This one should be fairly obvious, but it needs being stated; every character needs goals and motivations to be of any relevance to the story. Write a chart, use excel, I don’t care – what matters if writing the goals and motivations of the characters throughout the story, this can coincide with the first point about taking your character on the ABCD journey. Note down why they go on their own story and perhaps more importantly, remember that everyone thinks they’re the protagonist of their own story, the hero even – even if they’re not in your eyes, to make your characters feel real and come alive, they need to believe that they’re not just the sidekick but have their own goals and motivations that feel believable. So in addition to giving them these goals and motivations to attain said goals, perhaps write down what in their backstory put them into this state that gave them the motivation to chase after said goal. Lastly, figure out if the goals of this character change as the story goes on.
So that's three quick tips for writing better characters and developing them in your story. Now get out there and create new worlds today.
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