Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Develop Characters, with Screenwriter & Producer Monica Piper

The best stories are about characters. They’re memorable, unique, and relatable. But, giving your characters personality and purpose isn’t as easy as it sounds. That’s why we love when experienced writers share their secrets, like these from Emmy-winning writer Monica Piper.

You may recognize Monica’s name from hit shows such as “Roseanne,” “Rugrats,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” and “Mad About You.” She told us that her recipe for great characters is a combination of relying on what she knows, what she sees, and a touch of conflict.

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  • Know How Your Character Exists in Their Physical World

    “I think people write best from what they know. 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,” she said.

    It’s essential to know your character’s physical world, and how they exist in it – whether that’s what they wear, what they look like, or how they move or act. Or, in this case, how they drive!

  • Base Your Character on Truth, or, Truths

    “I try to base characters with an element of truth and familiarity of someone I really know, a friend who has funny quirks, a relative, a neighbor,” Monica explained. “Sometimes, I combine characters. I combine traits of people that I know and make them into one character.”

    Sure, dreaming up characters is a ton of fun. But often, the most believable and memorable characters are those based on truth. There’s a reason you remember that real person’s personality quirks! Give your characters the same courtesy. It makes them unique, just like you and me.

  • Make Your Supporting Characters Opposite or Complimentary

    “Think of a character who will easily be in conflict with another one of your characters – like the polar opposite. Look at people around you. Sometimes, just sit, and people watch with a notebook.”

    Your main character’s goal sets the course of the movie. But secondary characters are just as important, because they bring out your hero’s qualities, flaws, and challenges, and help us understand them better. They should either be complementary or opposite. A complimentary character might lift your lead when they’re feeling down or reinforce bad behavior. A character that is opposite will help reveal flaws in your lead and reveal new perspectives.

If you’re having trouble dreaming up your next hero, villain, or supporting cast members, try people watching. Judy Bloom, a prolific writer, and teacher of MasterClass, recommends writing an inner monologue for the people you see. What’s their name? How are they feeling today? What are they thinking about? It’s an excellent activity for brainstorming.

If you already have a character in mind and just need help to explore them, start asking questions about them. Here are 25 questions to ask your character, adapted from Bloom’s MasterClass, to learn more about them and make sure they’re well-rounded enough to have a purpose in your screenplay:

  1. What is your character’s name?

  2. What is their gender at the moment?

  3. When is their birthday, and how old are they at the beginning of the screenplay?

  4. What do they look like?

  5. What is their general disposition? Are they cheery, or grumpy?

  6. Where do they live?

  7. What do they like to eat?

  8. How do they dress – do they dress to impress, do they dress in a way that is appropriate for their age, or do they dress to look younger or older than they are?

  9. What significant experiences have they had in their lives?

  10. Have they had any traumatic experiences?

  11. Did they have a bad childhood, or did they have a good childhood suddenly destroyed by a traumatic event?

  12. What do they think deeply about?

  13. Do they have any obsessions?

  14. Are they in love?

  15. Do they have any pets?

  16. Do they have any medical conditions?

  17. What do they like to do in their spare time, if they have any spare time?

  18. What are their friends like?

  19. What are their hobbies?

  20. What are they most embarrassed by?

  21. Where they went on their first date, and with whom?

  22. What are their pet peeves, and why?

  23. What is the best thing that ever happened to them?

  24. Does your character lie, and if so, about what?

  25. What would destroy your character?

Remember, your characters are central to your story. If you can replace your character with any other character, and the story still makes sense, you just have a situation, not a story. Why is this character the only person who could go on this journey?

Stay in character,

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