[This post is partly taken from our brand-new course, The Script.]
Creating credible, “real” characters is a challenge to the new scriptwriter. Every genre – whether action or drama – is underpinned by character.
Character, along with plot, is a basic, vital ingredient in a screenplay. It’s worthwhile devoting some time to character development.
Why Credible Characters Are Essential For A Convincing Screenplay
Viewers do not have to like your main character, but they have to believe in them. They have to believe in the decisions they make and the actions they take.
They have to cheer the character on, laughing with them, crying with them, biting their nails during the tense scenes, and feeling a sense of relief at the climax.
Credible characters make you empathise with them and root for them. There is always some reason why viewers want them to succeed. If viewers can’t do this, you don’t have an audience for your film.
Alfred Hitchcock said: “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Viewers won’t be prepared to suffer if they don’t like your characters.
People should be able to think ‘That could happen to me’ or ‘I wish that could happen to me’, or most importantly, ‘How would I act if that happened to me?’
Think about the characters in films that you enjoy most. There was always something in their character that won you over, that engaged you enough to care about them, to make you root for them.
James N. Frey, the author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel calls fictional characters ‘homo fictus’. He writes: “Readers demand that homo fictus be more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, vengeful or forgiving, brave or cowardly, and so on, than real people are. Homo fictus has hotter passions and colder anger; he travels more, fights more, loves more, changes more, and has more sex. Lots more sex. Homo fictus has more of everything. Even if he is plain, dull and boring, he’ll be more extraordinary in his plainness, dullness and boringness than his real-life counterparts.”
What makes these characters endure in the imagination?
- Rick Blaine in Casablanca
- JJ Gittes in Chinatown
- Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct
- Sally Bowles in Cabaret
- Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo
- Maximus in Gladiator
- Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind
- Nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery
- Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman
- Darth Vader in Star Wars
- Don Corleone in The Godfather
- Simba in The Lion King
- Neo in The Matrix
- Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
Sometimes characters are distinct and enduring enough to become the title and focus of a movie.
- Annie Hall
- Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
- Cool Hand Luke
- Dick Tracy
- Forrest Gump
- Ace Ventura
- Duece Bigolow
- Jerry Maguire
- Billy Elliot
- Erin Brockovich
So, how do screenwriters create characters like this? If you want to find out, sign up for our online course: The Script
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