How To Write A Screenplay: Create Characters With Purpose
Pro Tip: Start with a logline
By Jen B.
The question of how to write a screenplay can be hard to tackle but one of its keysis good characters. Most screenwriting websites dedicate a lot of time and effort on characters and how to create them. That’s because writing screenplays that sell requires solid, well-written characters that carry your story and resonate with the audience.
Why are characters important?
Once you have a firm grip on your concept, premise, and overall storyline, you have a decision to make: who is going to tell your story for you?Unless you’re writing a documentary about the weatheror the aging of the earth’s crust, you need characters to come to life as fully-developed voices through which you will tell your story.
Whether your characters are dogs, animated cars, or living breathing people, you’ll need to choose those who are the primary focus of your story. These individuals are your protagonists. These are the characters we care about and root for. They’re often the “heroes” with whom the audience easily identifies.
Creating your protagonist
Once you have that character in mind—your hero or heroine—you need to be sure this is someone thescript reader will want to spend two hours with. Your protagonist has to be someone we care about or we’ll quickly lose interest in their problems. Writing screenplays that sell means you need to keep your audience engaged in your story by helping them believe in your protagonist and his or her journey.
How to write a screenplay with active characters
Successful characters don’t need to be heroic.But they do need to be active. Consider the character of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. We certainly don’t want to invite him to dinner, but he commands our attention because he’s someone who makes things happen. He’s clearly an active character who doesn’t wait for the story to come to him. He is the story because he knows what he wants and refuses to let anything prevent him from achieving his objectives.
If you’re still not sure how to write a screenplay with an active character, remember this: don’t let things simplyhappen to your protagonist. His objectives should be achieved because he acts to achieve them.
Screenwriting exercises suggest that you build within your protagonist a foundation of certainty. He or she must know exactly what they want and promptly begin doing those things that will help them achieve those objectives. From a structural standpoint, your protagonist should begin doing those things early in the first act of your script. Some of the most successful films have the hero advancing the action within the first ten minutes of the story. That means your hero should be moving forward to achieve their goals by page ten.
What does your character want?
Make sure that your protagonist has a clear want. The number one problem we see with screenplays is protagonists who don’t have clear goals. If you intend on writing screenplays that sell,your audience needs to know who, what, and why. Who is the protagonist? What is his/her goal? Why does he/she need to accomplish the goal?
Without clear goals, your script will never be made. You know your main character lacks a clear goal if:
1. You’re having a hard time knowing what your next scene should be.
2. Your story suffers from “repeat beats” and too much expositional dialogue.
3. You have no idea how to get through your third act and finish the script.
How to create a clear goal
The gist of most screenwriting websites is: simplify, simplify, simplify. Every movie that you love is simple at its core. It has a protagonist with a simple goal.
– In Catch Me If You Can, Frank’s goal is to bring his family together.
– In Argo, Tony’s goal is to get the hostages back to America.
– In American Beauty, Lester’s goal is to sleep with his daughter’s best-friend.
These are all different types of movies but they all pivot around a clear goal for the protagonist. Everything the protagonist does is anchored in their goal.
Most screenwriting exercises that target character development focus on goals.Make your character’s goal specific. Goals that are too vague include “finding happiness” or “finding the meaning of life.” While in theory these make sense, they’re difficult to execute and are ultimately not specific enough to keep an audience engaged.
The script reader must recognize that your protagonist knows what he wants and how he’s going to get it. He also needs to know what stands in his way and your job is to make sure there are plenty of those apparently insurmountable obstacles for him to overcome. A simple objective easily reached is not going to hold anyone’s attention. Your hero’s objective needs to be substantial and worth fighting for.
Bottom line: the goal of your main character is the spine of your story and it must be tangible so the audience can watch itsrealization. Most importantly, if you know your goal, you know where your third act is going. When you work on screenwriting exercises, practice writing the climax of your story.This is when your protagonist comes face-to-face with achieving their goal (whether he/she fails or not is up to you). Also, if you know your main character’s goal, you know the Low Point of your story: the moment between page 75-85 when your character is furthest away from achieving his/her goal.
As a screenwriter, your job is to make the script readergo through 100 pages as fast as they can by drawing him into the challenges faced by your protagonist. Just remember this: your protagonist must have greater needs and more ambition to achieve his goals than anyone else in your story. His drive will drive your story. If your protagonist doesn’t want to achieve his ends vigorously enough, your reader simply won’t care whether or not he achieves them, and your script will find its way to the rejection pile.