indiana-jonesNow THAT’S a memorable character

Last week, I talked about outlining your plot. This week, I’m going to talk about outlining your characters. The more scripts I read, the more I realize that the thing that separates the men from the boys is character. Characters with flaws, characters with backstory, characters who arc, characters with internal conflict, characters with interesting unresolved relationships. You can feel depth when a well crafted character steps on the page. When I read “Where Angels Die” last Friday, I FELT Parker. I FELT those other characters. The writer didn’t just write those guys on a whim. He (as well as the author of the book) got to know everything about those people. If you want to be a serious writer, you have to do the same. Being able to develop compelling characters is one of the easiest ways to carve out a career in the screenwriting business.

Which leads to the question – How do you do that? Well, I’m not going to lie to you. It isn’t easy. Character-building takes a LOT OF TIME. But it’s time well-spent, as it’s the difference between a character who feels made-up and a character who feels real. The more you know about your character, the more of a real-life-quality he takes on. Because in a way, he’ll start to become real, since he’ll have lived an entire imaginary life in your head. Some screenwriters balk at the idea of working so hard before writing a script. But I’m telling you from experience – Every time I’ve encountered thin characters, I’ve asked the writer how much effort he put into them, and he’s conceded “not much.” And every time I’ve encountered deep rich characters, I’ve asked the writer the same question and they say, “a ton.” So it WILL make a difference. But it requires commitment.

Unfortunately, character outlining isn’t as linear as plot outlining. You’re going to be building multiple documents here, one for each of the primary (and secondary) characters. So with that said, these are the three main things you’re going to want to focus on when character outlining.

1) Character Handprint
2) Character Backstory/bio
3) Character Relationships


This is what I consider to be the heart of your character. These are the things that define him, that you can always come back to whenever you’ve lost sight of your character. They’re important because they’re actually going to be coming up in the story (as opposed to the stuff in a character bio, which is all backstory). So create a file for each of your major characters, and start by writing these three things down.

a) Your character’s story goal – What does your character want in your screenplay? You need to know this because every choice he makes will be in service to this objective. Maybe he wants an ancient Ark (Raiders). Maybe he wants a girl (Notting Hill). Maybe he wants to get sober. Maybe he wants to not get killed by aliens (War Of The Worlds). Maybe he wants a life of freedom again (American Beauty). Know what your character wants as it will provide him with focus and clarity (never to be underestimated – I read so many scripts with unfocused unclear characters and they’re all a mess). And don’t just do this for your hero (which is the easiest story goal to figure out). Do it for ALL your characters!  Find out what ALL of them want in the story.

b) Your character’s story motivation – What is the reason your character is pursuing the story goal? A character without a motivation will read false because we won’t understand why he’s doing anything. Also, a strong motivation is one of the easiest ways to create a strong character. Sometimes motivations are obvious (Tom Cruise’s character’s motivation in War of the Worlds is to survive). Other times they’re complex (Alonzo’s motivation in Training Day is to frame a rookie cop so he can score a big payday). You need to know why characters are doing things or else every decision they make comes off as false.

c) Your character’s flaw – Everybody’s got a flaw, something holding them back in life. Once you know a character’s flaw, you can create a journey that challenges it. Think of flaws as a one-sentence sound bite a person might use to describe someone else. My friend Jason’s flaw, for example, is that he never follows through with anything. My ex-girlfriend Kristin’s flaw is that she put everyone else above herself. An old co-worker, Doug, never put in the effort required to succeed at his dream. Think of anyone in your life. Chances are, you’re able to come up with a one-sentence sound bite that describes their weakness. This is actually a great way to find a flaw for your protagonist. Go through everyone you’ve known in life, find their defining flaw, and see if it fits your character. Once you have that, you can create a story that challenges the flaw. For example, with my ex-girlfriend, Kristin, I’d write a story where people are constantly taking advantage of her because of how selfless she is. She has to learn, by the end of the movie, how to say no and put herself first.

With these three things in hand, you have the core of your character at your fingertips. But that’s just the core. If you want to really know your character, you’re going to have to know everything about their life…


If you want to take the next step as a writer, you need to create character bios for your characters. This will suck. It will take a lot of time. It will feel like work instead of fun. But it’s the best way to add depth to your characters. So within the same document that you wrote your Character Handprint, you’ll now write up that character’s backstory, broken down from the day they were born to where they are now. The idea here is to write down all of their major life beats.  Although it’s up to you how you want to do it, most writers simply write a character bio like they would a story.  How long should these be?   Some are five pages long.  But I’ve seen them get up to twenty pages long.  It all depends on how much you want to put into it.  Cover anything you think is important, but here’s a cheat-sheet to help you along.

a) When your character was born.
b) Who his parents were (if they’re still alive/together).
c) Where they were born (this will inform their speech pattern and personality. Someone born on the streets of Philly will act and sound different from someone who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago).
d) What kind of person he was growing up (Popular? Outcast?).
e) What kind of school he went to.
f) Who his friends were.
g) Who his first girlfriend was (first kiss, first love, who he lost his virginity to).
h) Where he went to college.
i) His first, second, third jobs.
j) Anything else you’d consider a “major moment” in his life (i.e. loss of a friend, lost the big championship as a kid, a major car accident, jail time, period of being a drug addict).

The more specific you can get, the better. Knowing where your character went to college is one thing. Knowing if he got a full ride or paid with school loans could inform his current financial situation. If he’s still paying off those loans, he might be drowning in debt, which affects his mood, his disposition, his personality. He could be bitter that his expensive education didn’t amount to a more lucrative career. Do you see how the more you know, the more specific and REAL your character gets? Only a tiny fraction of this stuff gets into the script because it’s backstory. But it’s still important because it will inform the decisions your character makes, which is what will make him feel more real. And if you really really really want to know your characters well, use this questionnaire sheet. It’s not mine. It’s been on the web for awhile. But it’s SUPER SPECIFIC and forces you to get to know your character better than you know some of your best friends.  Your character is going to be REALLY FUCKING DEEP if you fill this out.


You definitely want to map out all the key relationships in your screenplay. And for a relationship to resonate, it should have a central conflict within it, something that’s unresolved. If there isn’t something that needs to be resolved, the relationship probably won’t be memorable. Think of relationships as the story that’s going on behind the story. Your hero battles orcs while searching for the gold. That’s the plot. But he may need his son as a guide, a son who’s never respected him after he deserted the family when our hero was a child. If you do it right, the audience will be more interested in the relationships getting resolved than the actual plot. Story relationships typically boil down to five types. They are…

a) family relationships
b) friendships
c) romantic relationships
d) work relationships
e) your hero’s relationship with the villain.

The typical screenplay will almost always contain the first three. One family relationship gone bad. One friendship that’s suffering. And finally, a romantic relationship that never seems to be on stable ground. Depending on the genre you’re writing, though (say you’re writing an action comedy like the upcoming, The Heat), the focus might very well be on the work relationship (Sandra Bullock needing to work with Melissa McCarthy). Whatever the relationship, your job in the outline is to identify what the unresolved issue is between the characters that needs to be fixed. It might be two cops who don’t respect the others’ work approach (The Heat). It might be a past love who’s run away with someone else and the hero wants her back (Great Gatsby). It might be a father desperately trying to get his daughter’s respect back (Taken).

You can map relationships out in two ways. You can create a document JUST for relationships, or, within each individual character document, include a section for that character’s key relationships. I prefer the latter because a relationship is different depending on whose perspective you’re telling it from. So say you’ve got Rocky and Paulie. On Rocky’s page, you’d describe the relationship as Rocky feeling loyalty towards Paulie and trying to help him. On Paulie’s page, however, you’d describe the friendship as more desperate. He needs Rocky because he doesn’t really have anyone else. Whatever the case, when writing a character bio, write out every character that character comes in contact with, and what the central conflict (or unresolved issue) is between them. Occasionally, there will be little or even no issues between two characters (there’s no conflict between Brad Pitt’s character and his wife in World War Z, for example). But usually, you’ll have something that needs to be fixed.

There are a lot of people who will tell you this stuff is overkill. And there are some instances where I’d agree with them. If you’re writing your first or second script, for example, getting into all this detail can be counterproductive. You haven’t even learned how to write a scene yet. Getting into who your character was 20 years ago will just be distracting. Once you get past those beginning stages though, you need to OBSESS over character. Because characters are the most memorable part of a movie. When we think of our favorite films, we think of the characters we loved in those films first and then the story. And I can practically guarantee that any timeless character you love wasn’t thought up on the fly. A lot of time and effort was put into making that character feel like a real person. That’s all you’re doing here when you outline. You’re getting to know the people in your story as well as you know yourself so you can write them as if they really exist. Most readers’ biggest complaint is thin characters. I’ve just given you a way to make sure that never happens. Take advantage of it!

  • romer6

    This is a great article, Carson. I agree with you, characters are the soul of the script. It is impossible to have a great script without a great character, but sometimes even a bad script may have some awesome characters (misused). I frequently have ideas for scripts that comes from an interesting character and the whole story starts to unfold around him/her. I believe that those kinds of script are the ones that stick with us longer.

  • Gregory Mandarano

    This is another thread that highlights the use of using tabletop role playing games as a resource for writing. In RPGs character creation is completely separate from story creation, but is obviously just as crucial to the game, if not more important. There are innumerable RPGs, and they all have their own simple to complex methods for creating memorable and interesting characters with depth. One of the advantages of using RPGs as potential templates for characters is that you can go beyond just backstory, and actually control what skills and abilities the characters have, so you know what they are capable of, and what they would be pushing their limits in trying to attempt. Knowing the limitations of a character is just as important as knowing their motivations, and will help create more realistic characters in your scripts.

    • J.R. Kinnard

      The protagonist in my current script has 100 Hit Points.
      D&D Reference for you old nerds (like me).

      • Gregory Mandarano

        That fatefull moment when your protagonist is faced with an impossible decision… and he rolls a crit!

  • ThomasBrownen

    Great article! I had an idea for a screenplay recently, and I knew what the major plot points would have to be, but I didn’t know the characters yet. And the script really suffered… as in, it was going nowhere and I could find a way to write anything good.

    But I spent some time working on the characters a bit more, and not only did the characters become a bit more memorable, but it affected the plot too. Whenever I’m not sure how to handle a plot point, I’ll find a way to make the plot challenge a character’s issues. And vice versa. I knew that the characters would have to deal with certain plot points, so I made sure to think about the characters as having troubles that would be affected by those plot points.

    And there’s a continual interaction between the plot and characters as I rewrite and find ways to add depth to the characters that I didn’t know about. This article will be a huge help in that process.

  • Evan Porter

    I think what I’m really starting to learn is how character and plot need to be tied together – almost as an extension of one another.

    Putting all the pressure on your dialogue to reveal character is a tough task. Character is better revealed, I think, through the choices they make in the story and what that says about their relationships.

    It sounds kind of like lip service, but if you don’t build opportunities in your plot for your characters to make revealing choices, you end up with these hollow set-pieces that no one cares about. That’s why some scripts seem repetitive – if the only stakes are life/death in every sequence, eventually we get burnt out. There should always be some progression in the character and/or relationships in every section of the script.

    • J.R. Kinnard

      If you’re into John Truby at all, he contends that plot and character are the same thing. Plot is what happens in the story, and what happens in the story is largely determined by decisions the protagonist makes.
      This is, perhaps, an over-simplificiation, but it has some merit.

      • Paul Clarke


        An external event (plot) should cause an emotional reaction by the character (character) which results in a behaviour that leads to the next event. And repeat. Intertwined causality.

        Both are necessary. The external event is required to elicit the emotional response. But that character should respond as they would if they were a real human being. I.e. they should respond because of internal reasons, not because they writer decides so. How they react defines them.

        Big action set pieces that elicit no emotional response in the character will likely elicit no emotional response in the audience. They will fall flat.

  • Linkthis83

    “If you’re writing your first or second script, for example, getting into all this detail can be counterproductive. You haven’t even learned how to write a scene yet.”

    As someone who is working on their first screenplay, I would disagree with this advice. Mostly because of advice that has been given over time at this site and even within this article.

    Since it seems that some screenplays don’t work because they don’t have memorable or deep characters, wouldn’t you rather have characters with depth in a scene vs. a scene that is well set up but doesn’t connect well with the reader due to thin character development?

    I’ve found thus far, and yes it’s way early for me in this process, that I don’t really want to write scenes until I understand better why the people are in them and what the point of the scene is (for story + characters). This has slowed down the rate of speed at which the story gets developed, but I feel like I understand my characters more as I do it this way (I also feel like I have a good understanding of a basic outline of the story). I know to each his own, I was mostly just trying to say that from my beginning point of view, I don’t feel it has been counterproductive. In the long run, maybe I will say that it was.

    I think this site is an awesome place for the discussion of making stories better. I just wished the general public hungered for the same :)

    • jaehkim

      as someone who just wrote his script not too long ago, I have to agree with carson. I wrote a page of character bio before I wrote my first script, where he was born, what school he went to etc.

      I wouldn’t say it was a waste, but now I am of the opinion that a starting writer should master structure first. I say this because most people make up their minds about a writer in the first 10 pages, and if those 10 pages aren’t written well, no matter how much depth a character seems to have (which isn’t much in 10 pages), the reader will check out.

      if you don’t me asking, what’s your script about?

      • Linkthis83

        I think I was mostly overreacting to his use of the word “counterproductive.” In my infantile stages of this process I may not know how to structure properly, but I do know what kind of impact I want certain scenes to have and that so far has been because I understand my main character and his MAIN issues (not because it is based off of me or someone I know either).

        I’d love to share info about the screenplay but I am co-writing it with someone and I don’t want to put anything on here until we think we’ve got a good enough handle for feedback from the masses. But it sure is hard having to wait to get to that point :)

    • Evan Porter

      You’re probably right.

      It’s funny, you can go back and forth over what to prioritize in your first script all day, but I think the important thing is you can’t master everything the first time round. I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a definite limit to how far you can progress as a writer through a single script.

      The guy who writes 15 scripts in 10 years will be better at everything than the guy who rewrites the same script for 20. Maybe it doesn’t really matter whether you start off learning harsh lessons about story vs character.

      • Linkthis83

        Agreed. I can’t wait to get through the growing pains (which in writing terms, I don’t think happens until you go to the great beyond – and even then I’m not so certain they stop).

    • AJ

      I am also writing my first screenplay (halfway through 1st draft) and I disagree with the advice as well. I would say what Carson was discussing was if you are a “typical” first time screenwriter who thinks up a story and says “I’ve seen movies, how hard could it be”, then you will most definitely be bogged down with story elements. I would not consider myself typical because my path has been more of a read screenplays and lessons on writing for 3 years, and then write your first screenplay.

      It has been a very natural process for me, without creating word documents on my characters background as this article suggests. I was scared when I first got into this article, but I am relieved having finished it knowing that I have covered/incorporated most/all of these things throughout the plotting of the story.

      Never underestimate what you can learn about writing from READING SCREENPLAYS!

      • Linkthis83

        I think my problem in this process has been learning HOW to read screenplays. Some of my takeaways from scripts vs. others on here make me seriously question what it is about that format that changes things for me. I am always trying to be self aware in this process for sure.

        • AJ

          Get Socratic on it and always ask WHY! Once I started questioning every decision, character/dialogue, and plot choice, I began to see the setups, hidden exposition, and story pacing, etc, which really allowed me to discover the simple tricks and techniques that are used in so many screenplays.

          Seeing these being used in so many different ways has allowed me to keep my story flowing because it has given me many more options. This meaning I have tons of FREEDOM with my story because no matter which direction I go, I can recall a working method to provide the info I need and keep true to tone and theme.

  • fragglewriter

    After reading yesterday’s review, I was hoping that you would do a character outline.


  • filmklassik

    What I’m wondering is whether the writers of CASABLANCA, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE STING, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, etc, ever took the time to prepare extensive character outlines. And if not, why not?

    • brenkilco

      Well, in the case of Casablanca, Double Indemnity and Condor the screenwriters had the book or play to rely on so there would have been no need for an outline. But I take your point. I have never heard that Billy Wilder outlined anything. He and his partner just talked things through and then started banging away. They had a gift for getting inside their characters.

      • filmklassik

        Well, you’re right about INDEMNITY and CASABLANCA (though those movies both improved considerably on their source material) but THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR bears no relation to the mediocre spy novel that inspired it (which was called, by the way, SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR, written by James Grady).

        Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the first draft of the screenplay before Sydney Pollack signed on as director. Pollack then brought in his favorite rewrite guy, David Rayfiel, to completely rework the characters and story into what became one of the best and most oft-imitated “paranoid thrillers” of all time.

        • brenkilco

          Condor is one of the essential post Watergate paranoia pictures of the seventies but I’ve always thought of it as one of those good movies that could have been better. Doesn’t really even have a climax, just a violent denouement. Still I like Houseman’s mandarin (“..I miss that kind of clarity.”) and Von Sydow’s assassin(..but he will leave open the door of the car..”). On the other hand casting Faye Dunaway as an innocent, naïve character was just weird.

          • filmklassik

            Hmm. I hear ya, buddy, but I can’t climb aboard that train. CONDOR, for me, has the perfect ending, with Cliff Robertson offering a tenable, and therefore chilling, justification for his agency’s actions.

            As for Dunaway… I’m guessing there weren’t many women around with a comparable level of fame, youth, beauty and talent who were willing to accept a supporting role. Just a guess, but I bet I’m right.

      • alanbsmithee

        To me “Talked things through” equals an outline. That’s the purpose of an outline, to flesh out your story, characters, etc. If I remember correctly Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had a stenographer on had when they had these “talk” sessions. So the transcripts were an outline.

        • filmklassik

          Agreed. I’d be shocked if Wilder and his collaborators didn’t outline their stories ahead of time, and equally shocked if they composed “character outlines” for their heroes.

          • brenkilco

            My assertion was based on my admittedly hazy recollections of the Wilder bio “On Sunset Boulevard” that I read some years ago which detailed his work methods with Brackett and Diamond. Dig it up if you want the straight dope. Last word on Condor. Run it as a double feature some time with the Redford/Scott mishmash Spy Game to see how story telling, directorial craft and political morality have all degenerated since the seventies.

          • filmklassik

            I agree… for the most part. While movie storytelling has devolved to infantile levels since we have entered the Age of the Tentpole… and directorial FLASH seems to be a substitute for craft for many film school graduates these days (characterized by promiscuous use of the shaky cam, unmotivated camera moves, A.D.D cutting, etc)… I confess to being confused by your assertion that “political morality has degenerated since the seventies.” Please explain further.

          • brenkilco

            Wasn’t making a pronouncement on the culture. Just giving my opinion of the movies. Back in the day you could have genre entertainments with moral underpinnings: The Spy Who Cam in from the Cold, even Condor and the Costa Gavras thrillers. Something like Spy Game is too juvenile even to appreciate the amorality it’s celebrating. But placing it beside Condor, it being Redford thirty years on, gives it a sort of depressing resonance.

          • filmklassik

            Well I haven’t seen SPY GAME in several years but I remember it as being moderately diverting and somewhat — SOMEWHAT — more intelligent than the usual Tony Scott strobe-fest.

            But yes, it mostly evaporated from my memory within 24 hours. That movie is to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR what ENEMY OF THE STATE is to THE CONVERSATION. Which is to say it is a glossier, less literate descendant of an exponentially better film.

            And I do agree that once upon a time, studio genre flicks often had fashionable social commentary “baked into” their storylines, and usually at the insistence of a powerful filmmaker. Pakula had a lot of it in his films, and the results were wonderful in KLUTE and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (natch), mixed in THE PARALLAX VIEW (the last half falls apart for me) and disastrous in ROLLOVER.

  • gazrow

    Great article, Carson! One of your very best!

  • deanb

    Then again, sometimes less is more. What about symbolic characters like Anton Chigurrh and Michael Myers? The less we know about them the more mysterious (and scarier) they are.

    • brenkilco

      These two characters are worlds apart. Michael Meyers is scarcely a character at all, just a force to be dealt with. While the absence of a background for Chigurh may make him more frightening he is also a very specific character. Psychopathic and batshit crazy but also possessed of a twisted sense of honor and professionalism and an obsession with chance and fate and whether the two are the same. We don’t know anything about his background but we understand a bit about how he thinks which is every bit as scary as what he does.

  • Poe_Serling

    Here’s my favorite story of creating a memorable film character:

    After viewing the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight a few months earlier and coming off a dismal 29th birthday party…

    “I was hit with a jolt and that was the realization that all I had been writing had been trite, that it had been done before and I was simply yielding to a vogue. What did I really enjoy seeing up on the screen? I enjoyed heroism. I enjoyed great love. I enjoyed stories of dignity, of courage, of man’s ability to rise above his station and take life by the throat and not let go until he succeeded. Yet no one was making films like that. ‘They’ would call that corny, outdated, and thirtyish or a throwback to the forties or the unrealistic fifties. Well, not me. I knew I had a story in me…

    …I had the beginning of my character. I had him now. I was going to make a creation called Rocky Balboa, a man from the streets, a walking cliché of sorts, the all-American tragedy, a man who didn’t have much mentality but had incredible emotion and patriotism and spirituality and good nature even though nature had not been good to him. All he required from life was a warm bed and some food and maybe a laugh during the day. He was a man of simple tastes.

    The second ingredient had to be me, my particular story, my inability to be recognized. I felt Rocky to be the perfect vehicle for that kind of sensibility. So I took my story and injected it into the body of Rocky Balboa because no one, I felt, would be interested in listening to or watching or reading a story about a down-and-out, struggling actor/writer. It just didn’t conjure up waves of empathy even from me and I was sure it wouldn’t do it from an audience either. But Rocky Balboa was different. He was America’s child. He was to the seventies what Chaplin’s Little Tramp was to the twenties.”

    -Sly Stallone

    • kenglo

      Master Poe you are just SO DEEP! I’m still trying to hear the grasshopper at my feet! Another great article by Carson, another great comment by you. Awesome day!

      • Poe_Serling

        lol. I can’t take any credit for the message – that’s 100% Stallone. That particular story has always been a source of inspiration for me… and I just wanted to share it.

    • jaehkim

      I’m surprised sly was so… articulate and thoughtful.

      • Poe_Serling

        I think that he fancies himself as a deep thinker… remember when he posed nude in the posture of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ for Vanity Fair back in the day.

        Per Stallone: “… the “Thinker” pose is not so out of character as some might believe.”

        Then the article goes on to mention that:

        “He paints, aspires to make a movie about poet Edgar Allan Poe, and even writes some verse himself.”

    • klmn

      Breaking news- Stallone has just signed to star in and write another comeback story. Yes, he’s going to play Paula Deen.

      • Poe_Serling

        Hey, that’s not so farfetched – remember Stallone dressed as a woman to nab Rutger Hauer in Nighthawks.

    • witwoud

      And here’s what Stallone said about STOP! OR MY MUM WILL SHOOT:

      “The worst film I’ve ever made by far … a flatworm could write a better script than Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.’

      That script was written by ole ‘Save the Cat’, Blake Snyder.

  • jridge32

    “If you want to take the next step as a writer, you need to create character bios for your characters. This will suck.”

    Haha. Does it ever, Carson. Especially when you have script action you just want to jump into, and not worry with a character’s bachground.

  • TruckDweller

    A great writer once said his secret to writing memorable characters is to give each and everyone one of them a secret. Now, granted, that was Damon Lindelhof, but suck up your initial backlash for a second and think about it. Even if your character is an open book,there’s something about them that your other characters don’t know. And it’s likely something that explains who they are and where they’re coming from. The fact the other characters aren’t privy to this information is the source of conflict. And there’s your meat, your depth, your drama.

    Figure out the secrets.

    • Cuesta

      lol great trick delay the name of Lindelof. That guy is an expert in giving each character a secret… and keep them for themselves.

    • J

      That is a pretty intriguing statement. I could definitely see it adding more depth. Question though, is the audience aware of the secret as well or just the character.

      Can you give examples of a secret from the following characters

      Alonzo Harris – Training Day

      Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs

      Red – Shawshank Redemption


  • E.C. Henry

    Great advice, Carson. The more writers who do what you advise, will lead to deeper, and more memorable movies.

  • brenkilco

    I think this is useful as far as it goes. It will prevent you from having your character do or say something that would be inconsistent with his background or nature but it is not sufficient. You aren’t just observing your characters. You’re creating them. At some level you have to be able to become them in order to think as they think and create dialogue in their voice. Actors use this sort of exercise to get them to a point where intuition and imagination take over. Great characters aren’t just an accumulation of detail or a relationship flow chart.

  • SeekingSolace

    I truly appreciate all of the help Mr. Reeves gives to aspiring and established writers, but…..I don’t think any of the top screenwriters in the world really follow any of the tips/rules that are considered pivotal to creating great work. If they did wouldn’t every film they create be a masterpiece?

    I think all of the top writers in the world just sit down and write what intrigues them. Others see it and either praise them or scald them. It’s like the guy who paints a blue dot on a blank canvass. Some will see it and say “it’s a representation of man’s solitary existence in our vast universe, I’ll pay whatever the artist demands,” others will say “Please tell me no one is going to buy a painting of a blue dot on a white canvass, it’s so stupid.”

    I am actively trying to incorporate as many of Mr. Reeve’s tips and tricks into my latest script, a script that will undoubtedly unseat the number three script “Equalizer,” but I can’t help but feel like all of these rules/tips may be doing nothing more than making the process of writing more convoluted. I keep feeling like I should just write what comes to mind the way my idols do, rules be damned.

    As someone who fancies himself a writer, I beat myself up enough while trying to come up with an idea I think will stand out, which is REALLY HARD. Do I really need to beat myself up further for not properly incorporating every single rule/tip out there? This is truly a question I struggle with every time I try writing, and I don’t know what the answer should be. I think it’s best to go with my first thought which is write what comes to mind, rules be damned. Maybe I’ll make this way, maybe I won’t. I think it’s all a roll of the dice anyway.

  • Deaf Ears

    Fail. Carson never said Alonzo was the protagonist of TRAINING DAY.

  • Maggie Clancy

    I don’t think all of these steps are necessary BEFORE starting a script – sometimes you just want to get a first draft out, feel things out, etc. But I think this is a good place to go to if you start getting feedback saying that characters are bland, don’t feel real, etc. I have a couple of scripts that I want to do this with specifically. Writing a screenplay is just like writing a term paper or thesis…you can’t just jump in. Sure, at first you can meander through ideas, but in the end, everything has to connect and characters’ decisions, relationships, and motivations have to make sense. Thanks for the tips, Carson.

    • John B

      That’s kinda like what I said/do. I would go insane if I did this before getting out a first draft.

  • Linkthis83

    I completely understand that. I know for me, there just hasn’t been that many movies I’ve seen in the past couple of years that made me think “Wow, that was a great story/movie.” And of those, they haven’t really been the most popular movies at the theater.

    It led me to think that the majority of movies today are like my relationships in elementary school. And even though they only lasted an hour and a half, I still think I deserve better.

  • Kosta K

    I think a good idea is to write up your character’s “bio” in screenplay format. Have them sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, police station or on a first date, throw them all your questions and see what they do. It’s a much more fun approach and you might even walk away with some useable dialogue afterwards.

    The second you give your character an actual voice, they become more real… some tough question comes up – “What do you want out of life?” – they can choose to answer it or tell you to fuck off. It starts to feel less like work and more like magic! (not really)

  • Chris Leonard

    Another inspiring post and I love the character questionnaire. It reminded me that no ‘main’ character in any film – even tentpole action movies – would feel real without this prep work. Even someone as generic as Sam Whitwicky in the Transformers movies has several layers of characterisation, motivation and flaws that help the audience identify with him. Ok, these get lost a little when the Sfx take over, but you can tell the writer(s) have put the time in to flesh him out.

  • Kosta K

    Did you pick your profile name before you “grew up” ;p

    I think a lot of people are confusing screenplays with actual films. If it wasn’t for Harrisson Ford, you think Indy would have been such a great character? Once an actor grabs a role and runs with it, it’s a completely different animal. Most of the time the process from screenplay to finished film works more like broken telephone than anything else (sometimes in a good way).

    My point is: it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, a man or a zebra. If you can get your story to the right ears and into the right hands, the proper people will bring it to life and it will be remembered for a long time to come… but probably not us (the writers). We will most definitely (probably) be forgotten :)

  • Guest

    I thought Where Angels Die was way overhyped by Carson, but I definitely felt Parker. At least for the first half. Then he became an action hero of some kind and just started killin’ dudes.

  • carsonreeves1

    The more you know about your character, the more real he’ll become on the page. I’ll stick by that mantra until I die.

    • grendl

      Annikan Skywalkers third job?

      The Tatooine Dairy Queen.

      • John B

        hahaha that’s very funny! Hannibal Lector’s first job was probably a Fry Cook while studying to be a psychiatrist!

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    To quote:

    “(Alonzo’s motivation in Training Day is to frame a rookie cop so he can score a big payday)”

    Carson isn’t talking about the *protagonist*, he’s talking about a *character* in training day. This whole article isn’t about the story’s hero, it’s about every major character in the script.

    Which is actually very, very, very important to keep in mind. You don’t just do an outline for your hero, you do it for every major character that is part of your story. I believe that the best stories are the ones where everyone arcs. Even villains should arc. Look at Star Wars! Sure, maybe Return wasn’t the best of the original trilogy, but dammit, look at how they let Vader arc and look at how it made the story better.

    You’re absolutely right, the protagonist is the one who should have the most dramatic arc (that’s why the story is about her and not her buddy Stu).

    “We need to see glimpses of ourselves in them. Not where they went to school, not who they felt up on prom night. The major thing you want to have with a protagonist is a universality, a one size fits all Halloween costume that the entire audience can don to go through the maze of the plot. Yes, you want specificity to make that character seem real, not like a fabrication, but if you get too specific the movie just becomes about that fabrication, and we don’t go to the movies to see fabrications, we go to see ourselves, albeit in a funhouse mirror.”

    I think you may have missed the point there. Just because you add all this extensive info into your character outline, that doesn’t mean any of it will actually ever be spelled out in the script. The point of the outline is not so much to get additional stuff to put in your script, but to get to know your characters better and to walk in their shoes for a little while just to see what it’s like to be them. Sure, some of what you learn about them will end up on the page, but the main takeaway is that the better you know your characters, the better able you will be to bring them to live when you write.

    Say you’re writing a story about a high school teacher, Ed, who has to get his students to safety while there’s a lunatic with an assault rifle prowling the corridors and the cops can’t get in because of [fill in the blank]. If you just fire up Final Draft and start hacking away without really knowing Ed’s story, your draft is going to be plot-focused rather than character-focused. Without a good idea of how Ed will act and react, without knowing what sort of battle he was fighting *even before the gunman came to his school*, the script will be a bit bland and straightforward. But if you knew going in that Ed just found out that he has terminal cancer; how he had to give up his dream of becoming a bioengineer to take care of his mother when she was dying of pancreatic cancer herself; how he ended up with a shitty, underpaid teaching job and secretly hates his students; how he always felt cheated out of his destiny to be a great man, and not some lowly biology teacher; your story might take a much different (and probably much darker) path. And if you knew going in that his tweaker mom forced your gunman to suck dicks to support her crack habit starting when he was five, you might be able to create some very interesting and unique arcs for both of those characters.

    Point is, you’re right that a lead character needs to be broad to appeal to a large audience, but breadth is nothing without depth. And depth is helped greatly by outlining, and it’s definitely worthwhile doing.


  • carsonreeves1

    lol. I use the term “character” because I’m saying you should do this for ALL your primary characters, not just your protagonist. That’s one of the worst mistakes I see in screenwriting, a writer who puts all this effort in writing his protagonist, but knows nothing about the characters surrounding him.

  • Steve

    Great article. Thanks, Carson

  • Steve

    “Just write the screenplay. You’ll find the characters that way, if there are any there to find.”

    Yeah, write a story not knowing who your character is, so you don’t know how he or she will react to a situation. That won’t lead to thin, inconsistent characters who just act as the plot requires them to.

    Knowing that a character’s last girlfriend betrayed him, even if never revealed to the reader, helps determine how the character reacts to women now.

    Grendl can’t see how that’s useful because he thinks like a movie fan, not like a screenwriter.

    Guy hasn’t written a screenplay in years. Pointless to listen to clueless civilians like him.

  • Matty

    “Never in the history of writing has a produced screenwriter known the third job or first girlfriend of a villain if it doesn’t play a role in the plot.”

    How do you know this?

    The correct answer is not that “this advice is HORRIBLE!” but rather “whatever works.”

  • NajlaAnn

    I need this – thanks a million!

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    Why are you so angry, Grendl? One thing I’ve learned is that no one ever chooses to be angry, they just are… and more often than not, they don’t even know why. So I’m not asking you why you’re angry because I’m curious (I really don’t care), but for your own benefit. If you have nothing to offer in terms of constructive criticism, maybe you don’t belong on this site. If all you’re interested in is trolling, there are a whole lot of wonderful websites out there that might be better suited to your tastes.

    Good luck. That, I really do mean.

    • grendl


      I’m delighted tailmonsterfriend. I only get angry when someone wins an argument with me.

      When they lose and change the subject, like demeanor, or leaving this board it means I’ve won.

      Please. This was sheer joy.

      • John B

        grendl, you are a great antagonist for Carson! You’re like The Joker in the Dark Knight, you laugh at everyone’s plans and spread chaos here!

        • RO

          but is frequently flawed, far from intimidating and has many plot holes in their argument?


  • John B

    I don’t know if I’m in the minority here, but I always create my characters backstory after I create my story. Let me explain…Most writers don’t begin writing till they know how their story will end, thusly I don’t create my characters backstory until I know the final choices they make (which is the story seeing as we don’t care too much about the choices they make after the film) then I work backwards from there.
    Once I know the choices they will make in the story, I go back and ask ‘What events in this persons past would lead them here and cause them to make the choices they do?’ sort of like Determinisim, which states free will is an illusion and every choice you make is caused by an event that previously happened. So I usually don’t really work on character bios/etc until I am a couple drafts in and I understand the choices they make in the film.
    Does this makes sense? Does anyone else work with their characters this way? Just curious what everyone thinks?

    • alanbsmithee

      I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to create characters but I find your take interesting. My approach is similar in that I’ll know what the big events are and a general ending, but this is where mine is the opposite of your approach. I would do character work so that I’ll know what their reactions and decisions they’ll make when the events occur. To me, that’s the plot. How do the characters react and what decisions they’ll make that will lead them to act in a certain direction.

      • John B

        Oh yeah Alan, I do basic character work before hand, cause like you said it is essential. But for me I wait till I get a couple drafts in, then let the plot dictate the more specific details of my character. I’m kinda jealous of the guys who can come up with great characters and then base a story around them.

    • Paul Clarke

      Totally agreed. I was hoping someone would say this (thought it would be Grendl)

      I think it is a very dangerous path to take if you create these incredibly detailed character bios before knowing what you story is. If you haven’t done at least one draft (even just a mental draft) then most of these decisions will be arbitrary. Once you set then in stone you’re in trouble.

      What happens when you get the inevitable situation where your character needs to react a certain way for the story to continue, for it to be dramatic. But the character you created would never make that decision/behave that way in a million years.

      If your a lazy writer you just have them make the unrealistic decision. It will ring untrue and the audience will hate it.

      If you’re a little better you’ll make up some EXTERNAL reason for them to do so. This will feel like the writer acting as the hand of god. Again, the audience won’t like it.

      But the best option, is to go back to the beginning and make your character the person who would make that decision. And make sure the audience understands that. Therefore leaving a few vague-ties until you know where the story is going and where it ends it usually a good thing.

      Once you know the story and what’s required of your character, then you can go into depth and really build them up and a solid three-dimensional human being.

      • John B

        Yes, well explained. You let the plot dictate the character, not the other way around. At least that’s the way that has worked best for me.

        • alanbsmithee

          This is not a criticism on your method, but can you explain to me how plot will dictate the character? And again not to criticize but you mentioned that this method has worked best for you, can you elaborate in what way? For example, have you sold a script or gotten representation? Or are you just referring to this is the most comfortable way you write? I’m just curious.

          • John B

            I’m just a guy with a funny haircut and a Hot Wheels collection. All I can say is that I’m happy with that method and where I am in my screenwriting career=)

    • ReedBlack

      Hahaha! You just articulated (better than I did) something I just wrote in this thread. Which is just write! Write the story you have in your head and THEN go back and figure out all the other stuff. Its easier and much faster and ultimately yields better results because you can see things more clearly. Good post man.

      • John B

        Thanks Reed=)

  • D.C. Purk

    For me, a movie is basically a 2 hour road trip. Imagine planning a road trip. Mapping out the adventure, setting the GPS, possibly stopping at the so and so historic site of whatever, taking impulsive turns off of random exits to check out something new, all the exciting twists and turns, so on and so forth.

    Then imagine at the last minute you climb into the car with an absolute underwhelming and downright irritating tool of a human being. And you are trapped in this intimate and constant one on one scenario inside the small space of a car. You have a few thrills and surprises here and there, but after each great stop, you remember “oh yeah, I have to get back into the car with this mother fucker again.”

    So when I write a movie, I don’t think of all the twists and turns and stops on my road trip. I just try to think of the most interesting and rewarding and entertaining person to be trapped in a car with for 2 hours. Then my road trip can really go anywhere, and I’ll just love the journey. At that point, any twists and turns and stops will just be a bonus.

    Don’t get me wrong, the “map” of the road trip is definitely important, because there should be a plan and a destination, but we don’t love road trips for the road, it’s the interactions we’re forced to have along the way.

  • Jaco

    So this method doesn’t work for you, grendl, cool. But, it might work for some other writer and might help them create a better story.

    For that mere fact, shut up.

    • Jaco

      I see your reply – but looks like you are being moderated at the moment, grendl.

      Here’s my response:

      “If you are advocating writing bios about the first three jobs of an antagonist, you’re an idiot”

      That, you furry animal, is not “debate”. It’s a declarative statement made in an attempt to belittle a person for no good reason.

      I’ll say it again – if what Carson’s talking about works for a writer, great. That should be the bottom line.

      I’ll agree there is no magic formula or blueprint to follow – you gotta find your own method to the madness. “Rules” or “suggestions” or “points” or “things I learned” can, sometimes, make for good sign posts along the way – but there is no one way to write a screenplay – other than to just, well, write.

  • Auckland Guy

    Great thanks Carson, learned a lot here.

    I’m a bit like a few others here though, tend to get the basic facts of a character, then let the story unfold who they really are. I find it hard to get too prescriptive about their details too early on, otherwise I would find myself second guessing what they do in any given moment. i.e. is that decision consistent with their character description? This could hold the story back.

    For me, I like to just get the ‘essence’ of a character and what they want, before beginning… maybe a few salient facts of their backstory because this could have a bearing on plot points. Any extra detail can be added once the first draft is done and minor tweaks can be made.

    Same with outlining a story, like to have the basic twists, the act turns and the ending before beginning, but then let the story come out in the writing. Too much detailed outlining I find restrictive and taking the spontaneity out of the story. I believe some of the greatest stories in history have come from the writer just enjoying themselves and surprising themselves first, then the audience will enjoy themselves and be surprised too.

    It’s a fine line. For me a little bit of planning, then a lot of spontaneity, then a whole heap of rewriting. Different for everyone though.

    A big thing I took from this column though was that you FELT Parker in ‘Where Angels Die’. I get what you’re saying and that’s what we should aim for in a movie.

  • Kay Bryen

    “My ex-girlfriend Karen’s flaw was that she put everyone else above herself.”

    I totally sympathize. Nobody likes serial fornicators…

    Anyway just some conflicting observations from me on the (de)merits of detailed character outlines:

    FOR THE DEFENSE: Without outlines, writers are better at fooling themselves than fooling their audience:

    Recently someone asked me to send a “character bible” of my script. I told her of course I’ll mail it right away; but of course I didn’t even have one. So I’m scrambling to type up my characters’ motivations and past lives, when it struck me: I’d much rather watch the characters in this bio than the actual characters in my script!

    I’ve always erred on the side of a minimalist approach, just letting it all hang loose and letting my characters surprise me. But not all surprises are pleasant surprises. The fact that some writers don’t like character outlines, only proves that they need them even more — for the same reason Wall Street doesn’t like regulation; and with the same results.

    FOR THE PROSECUTION: We bend the rules in the real Bible every day; why should a character bible be any holier?

    Remember: Backstory is easier to rewrite than story. By all means your character should feel “lived in”, but if you experience a flash of inspiration and conjure up mind-bending plot twists and turns, don’t be afraid to adjust your characters’ motivations so it feels organic to their personalities.

    VERDICT: Hung jury — The ideal route lies somewhere in between. Look, do whatever works for you — whatever drags your ashes across state lines and back.

    (And you thought the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling was indecisive…)

    • Auckland Guy

      Good points though Kay.

      I would ask, is story more important than character, at least on a first draft anyway? For me, it is. Getting the plot and structure sorted first is the biggest issue when blurting out a script. Character is obviously incredibly important too, but I believe should take a back seat first time round. After that enrich them, add detail, absolutely and by all means flesh out.

      Know who your character is though, their essence, before beginning, because that will obviously inform a lot of their decisions.

      I’m with you though, different strokes…

      • Gregory Mandarano

        Personally, I think its ludicrous to write without knowing your character. You cant even play a role playing game without a character, why would someone write without one? Of course, im spoiled having written biopics.

        • Auckland Guy

          But I guess the question is Gregory, how well should we know them before beginning? Down to the last degree or just know their personality, a little of their backstory, and what their goal is.

          If we look at John McClane as an example, we know he’s a wisecracking everyman NYPD cop who’s having trouble in his marriage, but when pushed will stand up to the bad guys and won’t run. That’s about all we need to know and we’re on board for the ride. We don’t need to know where he gets his hair cut, what coffee he drinks, what he was like in high school etc…

          I guess it could be argued that character development is less important in the action genre than a soul searching drama, or even a biopic, where detail I’d imagine is vitally important. But I still think an audience is less interested in detail than in being ‘emotionally engaged’ with a character. Even taking Parker from Where Angels Die as an example, I didn’t much care about his OCD and all the detail of his little quirks, but I did care when I saw him give his coat to the recently orphaned kid in the projects, or take a phone call in the early morning to come drive the girl to school. Those are what got me on board with him… ‘this guy cares where nobody else does’. That is his essence and that one fact will drive a lot of the action and interaction after that.

          But as I say, different approaches work for different people.

    • John B

      I think it was in Save the Cat or Your Screenplay Sucks, but one of those authors gave some advice that I really liked and it went something like…”Only do as much research as you need to. No more, no less.”…..That advice really stuck with me and that seems to be the “minimalist” style you write in (me too). There’s no right or wrong answer to this. If spending 20 hours figuring out the name of your 6th most important characters Middle School Teacher helps someone write, then kudos to them.

  • tipofthenose

    SORRY! But I can’t believe that the writers on “Where Angels Die” worked hard on their characters. The protagonist and the bad guy are just too standard and too flat. And don’t get me started on the female protagonist, she had nothing. Everyone in the script just did what the writer thought would be cool. No decision in here was motivated by backstory or biography. And it got an impressive!!!! I have that feeling that if one personally likes a script she or he can read whatever backstory they want into it.
    Also the other impressive of the week “Patisserie” did nothing for me and I never felt any history.

    I can only say that I know my characters even without writing a big biography. I start outlining and I start writing the first draft and every character I incorporate I know. I know what she or he wants and who he is and that is why I put them into play. Otherwise it would be just a name on a page what can do whatever it wants. My characters don’t cheat and I don’t cheat! It happens a lot that I get to a scene and I start writing and in th middle I stop and I can see write away. WAIT! STOP! YOUR CHARACTER WOULDN’T DO THAT! Whitout ever haven written a biography. Everyone and everything in my script has to fit together. So for one of my characters to go and kill ten people at a strip club I had to write a hell of a fundation, more then just a mean guy from prison being an ass to his wife and kid.

    • ReedBlack

      Thank you!! Well said. I’ve recently come to realize that all these so called rules and bio’s and all this “stuff” ultimately bogs the writer down. Its taken me years to undo all these screenwriting rules and just get down to pure writing. Just write. Write like you would if you were a kid. Once you have something down, THEN go back and clean it up or add whatever you believe is necessary to elevate the story. Too many rules will screw you up. At least it did for me. Keep it simple. There’s power in simplicity.

  • Steve

    It’s just so obvious you haven’t worked on a screenplay in years, Grendl.

    You’re inexperienced, just a few screenplays years ago, and that’s why you’ve no clue about what is or isn’t helpful to a writer.

    You don’t have your own experience to draw on, which is why you’re always talking about what famous writers do.

    You yourself do nothing.

    Instead of writing you sit in your darkened basement with Tootsie and Jaws playing on an endless VHS loop — at the same time.

  • shewrites

    Great article, Carson. I would like to add something to your point C, which relates to character’s arc. It really helps my plotting if I am specific about where my protagonist is at the beginning of the story and where he/she ends in terms of his/her flaw.
    It helps me map out his/her emotional development and create an organic story and transformation.

  • ReedBlack

    I personally think we over complicate the whole writing process. Too many rules. Far too many and this post continues that awful trend. Simply put – just write. Get the story out as fast as you can. THEN go back and do whatever you feel is necessary to elevate the story or make it better. Its taken me years to finally figure this out.

  • John B

    Great way to think about the importance of Why. Totally agree.

  • Cfrancis1

    What’s crazy is that the same guy wrote “The Expendables”. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Expendables in a guilty pleasure kind of way. But the writing is horrible!

  • K.B. Houston

    This was very informative but I tend to disagree with the premise. Yes, knowing your characters inside and out is paramount, but writing down trivial elements like when they were born and what high school they went to won’t get you anywhere. That’s not character development; that’s profiling.

    Character development is all about psychology. You need to get inside their head, think like they think, know their next move. You can’t do this by outlining nominal elements of their life that don’t affect the way they act. If you want, create a timeline of events from their past that shape who they are. Perhaps something devastating that turned them into a cynic or a joyous epiphany that led them to travel the world. Know their favorite foods, how good they are in bed, and what types of jobs they’ve had. But above all else, know everything you can about their personality and DNA! What makes them happy? What makes them sad? What do they want most out of life? How often do they cry? Are they religious? Are they capable of putting themselves in other peoples shoes? These are the questions you need to answer.

    Like many have alluded to, the whole point of character development is not to create archetypes; it’s to defy archetypes!!! Don’t pigeonhole your characters by filling out some check-sheet; rather, discover them! Go out and chase them down. Find out who they are. Be a writer. Be creative.

  • MARK11

    I get the extensive character bios, backstory, etc. It was big at film school; still big with prodcos and agents and actors. But, there’s a lot of great script by great writers where the
    emphasis on character this and that just wasn’t as tight as the overall story structure. And comparing adaptations of novels, etc., to specs isn’t the same ballpark either. I find, if I put tons of work in the plot to scene structure, the characters really start opening up to me without spending weeks doing these intricate, detailed character studies. And being influenced by writers from the 30s-40s, where they had to crank out great, solid genre movies — in a few weeks???? — more so than current ones, who may spends months on one spec, I know who I side with. Great movies just don’t come from great scripts. Directors, actors to stars, DPs, crews, etc., all have to fall into place at the right time…and a helluva lotta luck. But, Billy G., — helluva story wizard with great characters in great scenes — said it best: NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING.

  • Film_Shark

    Carson, this is an excellent article about character development. After reading ‘Where Angels Die,’ I have a better visual of what you’re referring to. Why does Felix’s script stand out among the pack? It’s obviously the way he reveals the main character Parker to us. When you see it, the “Ah ha” lightbulb goes off in your head. He reveals the flawed protagonist through his actions in the story. He doesn’t describe it to us in words but actions. It’s so easy to identify but so difficult to emulate. For example, when Parker lays down inside the sleeping bag on the floor instead of sleeping in a bed… Bam! That tells us so much about him to us.

    One question I do have and I’ve read several screenwriting books that don’t discuss it, is why so many screenwriters capitalize their action verbs in the story? For example from ‘Where Angels Die,’ (not criticizing his use of them but trying to understand the significance behind it). To me, it gets a bit distracting when used too frequently.

    He KNOCKS on the door. No answer. He KNOCKS louder. He hears a baby CRYING inside. He POUNDS on the door with his fist…

    Is it necessary to capitalize words like the ones used above? Other than that minor point, it’s a taut screenplay and definitely a page-turner.

  • ff

    Not only is it not overkill it’s essential. How can you honestly say you a re a writer without doing any of this stuff?

  • blue439

    Great article, Carson.