Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Create Unforgettable Characters

They're relatable. They make you feel less alone in your experiences. You hate them, you love them, and you love to hate them. Your favorite oh-so-quotable characters didn't get that way by accident, and the good news is there are tried-and-true formulas to help you develop characters just as addicting – perhaps, even more so!

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So, without further ado, let's meet some remarkable characters who play entertainment industry professionals in real life! They graciously lent their own character development tips so you can learn their four character development secrets. Learn more about these pros in their bios at the bottom of this blog.

How to Develop Unforgettable Characters

1.  Write Based On What – and Who – You Know

"I think people write best from what they know," Monica Piper began. "When I was writing my play, I thought back to my grandmother. You know how she'd drive? By looking at the expression on the passenger's face. I try to base characters with an element of truth and familiarity of someone I really know – a friend who had funny quirks, a relative, a neighbor. Look at people around you. Sometimes just sit, and people watch with a notebook."

The best way to have a deep understanding of your character's goals, motivations, quirks, and strengths is to base them on people or elements of people you know. This is where the phrase "write what you know" is often thrown around in writing circles. It's good advice because you perceive the situations and people in your life in a unique way. That perspective will resonate with people who either feel similarly or wildly opposite. That's what generates emotion and keeps the audience connected to your story.

2. Ask Yourself and Your Characters a Lot of Questions

"The main thing I do is just ask myself a lot of questions," Ricky Roxburgh revealed. "I have a list of questions that I ask myself. You know, how does this character see themselves? How do other characters see this person?"

Other questions to ask yourself can be broken into the internal and external features of your character: What are their external goals? How do they need to change internally? How does their life experience reflect on their physical image? What do they fear?

Take some time to get to know your character well with these character development questions from Monica Piper and this list of 20 questions to ask every character that you write into your screenplay.

3. Think of Characters as an Ecosystem

"You need to not think of each character in isolation. You need to think of your whole pool of characters as an ecosystem and think about what pressures each of them put on the other," Ross Brown explained. "If you think of it rather than a list of characters, but as a wheel with your central character in the middle, and then spokes that come out that are the other characters in the story, ask yourself how each of those secondary characters puts a different challenge, pressure, demand, whatever, on your main character, and that will also help you to develop both your main character and your secondary characters."

Roxburgh's approach is similar.

"Unique characters come from flaws and quirks and, you know, kind of shades of gray. Once you have a character that has some of those that feels real to your central character, finding those other characters that will push that character out of his or her comfort zone, speak a truth to them that they won't listen to, and bring out the flaws in your character, they all kind of build from there. And then you can ask yourself those same questions about those characters as well and build them out."

When developing characters, think of them in conjunction with other characters in your screenplay. How do they complement each other or work against each other to move the story along or add tension? The sidekick might be very good with money, while the protagonist has a penchant for gambling. Meanwhile, another friend is a loan shark who keeps the protagonist stuck in their ways. Always consider the critical role that each character plays.

4. Use the Rule of Three

"The thing about character development that's important is to give us moments to show where they're starting, and how they're learning, and then how they're growing, and it only takes three scenes to do that, right?" Bryan Young explained. "Say they're afraid of dogs, right? In the first scene, you have to show that they're afraid of dogs. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, you have to show that they're not necessarily … like they're trying to get over that, but they're not sure. And then, in the climax, they have to confront the dog. You've got a very clear line of character development there because you've seen it over the course of the story. That rule of three is really your friend when helping with character development."

Young's rule of three refers to building an arc for your character, an emotional journey of their own that lays parallel with the plot of your story. Learn more about the three main types of character arcs to figure out where your characters fit in.

Remember, every character in your screenplay, including your villain character, must be equally vetted through this process. It will also help you sort through characters if your list is getting long, combine characters into one to make them more exciting and impactful, and remove characters that clearly aren't adding anything to your story.

And names matter, too! Although we didn't cover the importance of a character name here, we do a deep dive on how to pick a character name here and list some of the most popular names in screenplays, from male, female, and nonbinary options, to popular names in various genres.

"Character development is really interesting," Brown concluded. "In some ways, it feels organic. I try to let the characters speak to me. I know that seems a little mystical."

We're all for mystical!

In conclusion, to bring characters to life, write from what you know, ask many questions, think of your character list as an ecosystem, and use the rule of three. With these tips from the pros, your characters will be strong enough to get through anything you throw at them and will make your audience cheer for them (or boo) in the process.

About the Experts:

  • Ross Brown is a veteran television writer, producer, and director, with credits on hit shows including "Step by Step," "The Facts of Life," and "National Lampoon's Vacation." He's currently the head of the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University in Santa Barbara.

  • Monica Piper is a comedian, playwright, and TV writer, with credits on "Rugrats," "Mad About You," and "Aaahh!! Real Monsters," to name a few. She's also a motivational keynote speaker.

  • Ricky Roxburgh is a story editor at DreamWorks Animation and a former writer for Disney Television Animation. His television credits include "Tangled: The Series," "Mickey Shorts," "Monsters at Work," and "Big Hero 6: The Series." He also wrote the screenplay for the animated feature, "Saving Santa," and the upcoming environmental animated feature, "Ozi."

  • Bryan Young is an award-winning screenwriter, author, podcaster, and journalist. He's a regular contributor to StarWars.com, HowStuffWorks.com, SciFi.com, and Slashfilm.com and hosts two podcasts. He also teaches courses for the Writer's Digest Screenwriter's University.

Stay in character,

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