Developing Characters

We’ve made it to June! It’s been a very long winter/spring this year in southern Ontario. There’s been a lot of rain lately which makes for perfect writing weather. As side from my night school course, I’ve been trying to flush out a new screenplay. Today I want to talk about character development.


Character Development

Have you seen these things in rear automobile windows? They are peel-and-stick representations of the family who owns the car or van. In this case, I’m not sure what the father likes but the mother enjoys skiing and the kids like swimming, hockey and soccer. It’s the key thing of each member of the family they want you, a stranger to them, to know about them. It made me think about character development. Each character in your screenplay is about a single key item – their want or problem. When you start your screenplay that is the one thing you want your audience to know about the character as quickly as possible.

Start your character development with determining the character’s want or problem. The character’s problem is actually going to drive the plot so once you know the problem the plot will start to come together. As an example, I’ve created an old woman character who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and she has just months to live. But that’s not her key problem. Her problem is actually that she’s looking for her daughter. As soon as I know she’s looking for her daughter I have to determine where her daughter is. Did the old woman put the daughter up for adoption? Or was the daughter abducted? Or did the daughter runaway at a young age? Answering this question will define the problem in more detail and it will also start to define the daughter character as well.

These two characters are related and not just as mother & daughter. Each of their back stories will help define, develop and build the back story of the other. If the daughter had been given up for adoption then the old woman would have spent her entire life wondering what became of her daughter. If the daughter had been abducted did the old woman ever give up hope in finding her daughter alive? What if it was reversed and it was the mother who abandoned the daughter? How would the story differ if the old woman had spent the last 20 years in jail and she wanted reconnect with her daughter before her illness finally takes her? The old woman’s time in jail affects both character’s development.

This pushes me to develop the daughter character. The daughter would have been placed in a foster home at a young age. That home could have been a good or bad influence. If I’m developing a drama then it would be best to make the foster home less than perfect. Any number of things may have happened in the home. Things that deep down the daughter blames the mother for. At 18 the daughter moved into her own apartment and started to become her own person. What position does the daughter hold in life now? Is she single, married or divorced? Does she have kids of her own?

Selecting Your Hero

So now I have two characters. One will be the protagonist while the other will be the antagonist – but who’s who? We know that the Hero drives the story forward with the choices they make. The Villain simply pushes against the Hero. Who’s story am I telling? Am I telling a story about a dying woman trying to seek the approval of her daughter or am I telling the story of a woman who has buried her past life so deeply that she refuses to acknowledge her own mother?

Both would make an interesting story but the audience would feel more sympathy for the old woman who is simply trying to correct a wrong rather than the daughter who is pushing her mother away. It will be the mother’s story of redemption.

Now that I have the two central characters determined I now need to start building the characters. I like the idea that the old woman has spent. 20 years in prison so that will be her background. What did she do that put her in jail? What came out during the trial that may have been damning that the daughter is using to feed her anger after 20 years? Anger never lasts that long unless it’s fed. I need to build the characters in such a way that their individual pasts affect their present.

Developing the Story

Each of them still needs a flaw. For the daughter I turn to the Seven Deadly Sins. Either Pride or Envy will be the daughter’s flaw. Despite her rough start the daughter has made something of her life. Maybe she’s in the public eye or has a circle of friends with wealth and power. What if she were on city council? When her mother appears she becomes worried that her mother will embarrass her in front of the city so she avoids her mother.

You can see how it’s easy to develop the story at the same time as you develop your characters. Of course the daughter will be trying to achieve something that her mother’s appearance will put in jeopardy. Is she running for mayor? Or moving to provincial or federal politics? While the old woman seeks forgiveness before dying the daughter is seeking something else all together and her mother is getting in the way.


Write out the life stories of your Hero and Villain. Maybe the story would be better if the daughter was the central character? I prefer picking the more sympathetic character as the hero since you need to get the audience on their side very quickly.

The last thing I do is name my characters. Often a name will start to form while writing their life story but a usually stick with daughter or old woman while I’m still in the early development process.

Now go get some writing done.
– Steve


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s