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Screenwriting 101: Tiny Touches That Make Your Characters Real

Screenwriters are often so concerned by the plot and scene construction elements of the script they’re writing that they often neglect to fully breathe life into their characters. Character should dictate plot, not the other way around. Listed below are five little touches that can help you create more well-rounded, realistic characters.

Vocal Proclivities

One of the easiest, and most overlooked writing techniques most writers don’t utilize enough is giving each character a distinctive vocal pattern. Does your protagonist have a favorite phrase? Do they love to swear? Are they constantly stuttering? These are all important questions to ask yourself when you’re going through the writing process. Most writers write like themselves. Every character speaks like they do. It’s the Aaron Sorkin effect. Or the Kevin Smith effect. People often think it’s ok to write every character with the same voice. In certain cases, it works but most times it’s an opportunity for stellar characterization that goes completely ignored. So, let’s use what opportunites we got to write great, memorable characters, hey?

Fatal Flaw

Every screenwriting book will tell you about the Fatal Flaw. It’s character building 101. You give your characters two positive traits and then a negative one. This makes for contradictions and dichotomies that ring true to the human condition. A telemarketer who has a speech impediment, a multi-millionaire who will never be proud of what he’s accomplished, a pianist with one arm, a lonely man with a heart of gold and mean mouth. You get the drill.

Small Weaknesses

Small weaknesses can provide insight into who the character deep down. When your character gets hurt how do they react? Do they love to over indulge in ice cream? Or reality TV? Do they hate working out? Are they fixated about going bald? These minor quirks will help to build layers to your characters, making them feel real, flawed and wholly human. The audience will see themselves in the material and they’ll relate. They’ll love the characters for their flaws, not in spite of them.

Describe Their Room

One easy way to get the audience up to speed on who your character is to describe their bedroom. Do they have posters on the walls? Do they have a pile of laundry on the bed? Do they have extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom? Do they have shelves filled with books or a huge walk-in closet full of expensive clothes? Or is their bedroom gray and sparsely decorated with nary a book or print in sight? These are all qualities that show us who they are. So, decorate that bedroom wisely.

What Their Friends Say About Them

Supporting characters are just as important as protagonists. They work as mirrors, illuminating different facets of the main character’s personality. Theoretically, a scene with the character’s best friend and a scene with their office frenemy would be completely different because the protagonist would act differently around each of those people. What does your supporting cast say about the lead? How do they reflect them? How do they contradict them? These are all important questions to ask yourself when working. Then, work to create the conflicts that will illuminate the differences, and hence, show the audience what the protagonist is made of in brilliant, interesting ways.

Writing screenplays that have a solid story, a believable conflict the audience can get into, and characters they care about takes lots of hard work, dedication, and most probably, a very fair dose of frustration. That said, when you can really conceptualize who your characters are and learn what it takes to bring those qualities to the page, you begin to find your bearings in the wonderful, unusual world of the screenplay. The more you know who your characters are by their weird lisps, addiction to peppermint candies, and those 80’s glam rock band posters adorning their bedroom walls, the more you intrinsically know the challenge and foes they must confront and how they would go about confronting them.

The portal to uniqueness is in the details.

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