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Creating Character and Characterization in Screenplays

by Elizabeth English

Interesting flaws humanize a character who is challenged to overcome inner doubts, errors in thinking, guilt or trauma from the past, or fear of and hopes for the future. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices make a character more real and appealing. The audience can identify with the character.

Flaws and imperfections give a character somewhere to go - the character arc - in which a character develops and grows, overcoming obstacles and gaining knowledge and wisdom and is recreated and restored to wholeness. A real character is not just a single obvious trait, but a unique combination of many qualities and drives, some of them conflicting.

Character Development

Character development is essential to a good story. Characters should enter the story as dimensional, non-stereotypical characters, and become more dimensional as the story and other characters act upon them. They should be big as life; capable of developing and being transformed. We should see different sides of them, understand how they think and act, learn about their philosophies and attitudes. We should be aware of their emotional make-up through their responses to their surroundings, to others with whom they interact, and to events which occur.

If your characters don't come alive in the script, they won't come alive on the screen. Answer these questions, as you characterize the protagonist and other characters within your storyline: what is this character's goal or motivation, why does he or she want to achieve this goal, who or what is trying to stop this character from reaching this goal and why, what strengths or weaknesses of this character will help or hinder in the pursuit of this goal?

Characters have emotional lives which define the character just as their attitudes define them. Their emotional responses expand this definition. It's the emotional response to events and to other people in the story that makes the character understandable and believable. How she/he feels creates sympathy in the audience, and creates identification with the character, wherein we experience vicariously the character's journey through the emotions and the story.

These dimensions create a dimensional sequence, which helps define the character on each level, and through the transformational arc of that character. A character's philosophy creates certain attitudes toward life. These attitudes create decisions that create actions. These actions come out of the character's emotional life, which predisposes the character to do certain things or to react in a certain way, and as a result of the actions of other characters, who each have their own dimensions, the character responds emotionally in a certain characteristic way.

Examples: A cynical attitude might result in despair, or depression, or in a withdrawal from life, causing the character to be morose, bitter or angry. A positive attitude might result in a character who smiles or laughs a lot, or is always optimistic, accessible, and reaches out. Or a character might be cool as a result of inaccessible emotions, or hard-hearted, or hostile and vengeful.

Each character feels the influence of the other, and responds through new actions and new emotions. The story influences the character and the character influences the story. Creating dimensional characters demands close observance of real life: noticing the small details and character traits and listening for character rhythms, and utilizing a broad range of thoughts, actions and emotions. The character of the individual should be expressed in a screenplay through actions rather than merely through dialog/talk. Action details will help expand and reveal characters, while still focusing on the necessary actions to advance the story; the film becomes more dimensional because of the dimensional character(s).

Creating a Character

In order to create a character, the writer must have a character to express. The process of identifying the character inevitably requires an identification with and an awareness of that character. You must discover the personal boundaries and singular identity which separate the character from his or her fellow man. Clarify your perceptions, eliminate the ambiguity, vagueness, misconceptions and illusions.

Do not construct a mannequin or dummy with an assortment of attributes attached to him or her like stick-on labels. In characterization, present not a puppet, an automaton, a generalized abstraction, a flat, one-dimensional figure, a cardboard cut-out, but a rounded, individualized, three-dimensional figure. The character must come alive for you as well as for the audience.

Realize your character with all six of your senses, react to him or her with your emotions, be able to follow the character with your mind. Fully breathe life into characters by covering their ancestry, past life, environmental influences, occupations, future aims, physical appearance, emotional drives, and basic unique traits. Get inside his or her skin; become the character.

Know what the person's face is really like, as well as hair, eyes, facial expressions, how hands and feet are used, gestures, how does the person walk and talk, what are the mannerisms, urges, aversions, body language. Realize the character's inner feelings. Observe physical details, inclinations, tastes, interests, habits, ambitions. How does your character treat and react to others?

Create an empathy within the audience for your character -- that special kind of imagination which allows the audience to put themselves in another person's shoes, a suspension of reality in which the audience identifies with the character. The memorable character who truly lives for the audience is one who walks off the screen and into their minds and their hearts.

Good screenwriting is really about character, as well as story and structure. Show the characters, don't tell about them. Create memorable characters, such as Scarlett O'Hara, Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, the James Dean character in Rebel Without a Cause, the characters played by Hepburn and Bogart in African Queen, Zorba in Zorba the Greek, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The writers and the screenwriters who created these characters, as well as the film directors and the actors' interpretations of them gave birth to and fleshed out these memorable figures, magically bringing them to life in the mind of the audience.

Often, characterization can be further enhanced by the use of a metaphor which can give visible shape to a character. A woman feels unloved, ugly and unhappy, she goes to a mirror, looks at herself, bangs her head on the glass, shattering it. We see her distorted image as the camera lingers on the mirror, and we, and she, realize that it is she herself who has made herself ugly, outside and in. Another, perhaps more subtle method of defining character to the audience, is by the use of symbolic objects in proximity to the character, or by the manner in which the character is placed in the frame. The figure may be placed alone in the frame, or at a distance, to convey his or her feelings of abandonment or loneliness. A character may be ascending a staircase, passing dark portraits of his or her ancestors, glowering down in a seemingly judgmental manner; he or she pauses at a brightly-sunlit window and looks out at a winding road, perhaps to freedom.

Film is a visual medium which is particularly capable of revealing insights that cannot be verbally expressed, and can be especially meaningful when associative, unconscious innuendoes are utilized. Words and incessant verbal dialog, by its very nature, often arrest and paralyze thought instead of permitting it and fostering its development. The frequent absence of dialog heightens the hypnotic power of the visuals.

You should not write the dialog; let the characters write it for you. Don't block them. Look for your characters to lead the way. Allow each character to speak in his or her characteristic, individual manner. Consciously focus on character, while making sure that character and story/plot intertwine. In the more vertical character stories, the protagonists affect the events of the story; humans control their own destiny. In the more horizontal plot stories, destiny more significantly controls the characters.

Story structure and character are interlocked. The event structure of a screenplay is created out of the choices that characters make, and the actions and reactions they manifest on the screen. Deep character and the relative complexity of character must often be adjusted to genre. Action/Adventure and farce usually demand simplicity of character because complexity would distract from the actions of the character. Dramatic stories of personal and inner conflict require complexity of character because simplicity would rob the audience of the insight into human nature requisite to that genre.

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything that is knowable through careful scrutiny. The totality of these traits makes each person unique. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization, but it is not character. True character is revealed in the choices that a human being makes. The screenwriter must strip away the mask of characterization, and peer into the true, inner natures of their characters.

The revelation of true character, in contrast to characterization, is fundamental to creating real and memorable characters who not only are driven by the story, but who themselves drive the story.

References

From The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary 1996: Characterize: describe the character of, describe as, be characteristic of, impart character to

Character: the collective qualities or characteristics, especially mental or moral, thatdistinguish a person or thing, written description of a person's qualities, consistent with a person's characterĘ

From Roget's Super Thesaurus 1995 Character: personality, nature, makeup, individuality, temperament, appearance, type, sort, kind, qualities Characteristic: attribute, trait, feature, peculiarity, aspect, distinction, individuality, idiosyncrasy

Characterize: portray, describe, represent, depict

SUGGESTED READING:

The Artist's Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron. G.P. Putnam, NY 1992

Creating Unforgettable Characters, by Linda Seger

The Figure in Film, by N. Roy Clifton. Associated University Presses, Inc., East Brunswick, NJ 1983

Film as a Subversive Art, by Amos Vogel. Random House, NY 1974

From Script to Screen, by Linda Seger & E. J. Whetmore

Making a Good Script Great, by Linda Seger. Samuel French Trade, Hollywood, CA 1987

Screenwriting 434, by Lew Hunter. Perigee Books, Putnam Publishing, NY, 1993

Story, Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee, Regan Books. Harper Collins Publishers, NY 1997

Storycrafting, by Paul Boles

Successful Scriptwriting, by Jurgen Wolf & Kerry Cox. Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio 1991

TV Scriptwriter's Handbook, by Alfred Brenner

Writer's Digest Books Handbook of Short Story Writing (Vol. I), by Frank Dickson & Sandra Smythe (eds.)

The Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing (Vol. II) Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1981

The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 1998

Writing Screenplays That Sell, by Michael Hauge

Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth English
Reprinted with permission from the Moondance International Film Festival Ezine (http://www.moondancefilmfestival.com/)

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Elizabeth English lives in Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She is the founder of the Moondance International Film Festival and competition. Elizabeth has written sections of four published books on creative careers for McGraw Hill and has written screenwriting articles for MovieBytes.com, EuroScreenwriter.com, and ScreenTalk Magazine. Elizabeth's screenplay, April Fool's Day was a finalist at the 2001 AFI Women Director's Workshops. Her stageplay The Mythical Journey was a 2001 finalist in the Alexander Onassis competition.

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