Welcome back! By the end of Lesson #2, you should have your story goals well defined. Now it’s time to get to know your characters.
One of the most common criticisms you’ll hear regarding screenplays is the preponderance of flat, passive, inconsistent, or underdeveloped characters. This can be typically attributed to the writer not understanding their own characters well enough – to make your characters engaging and relatable, they need to act in a way that is consistent with an established background and personality.
So, how do you describe the background and personality of a person that doesn’t exist?
The solution to this is simple. You get to know your characters the same way you get to know a real person – by spending time with them. A good way to start this process is with a character questionnaire.
A character questionnaire is a simple (but often exhaustive) way to develop realistic, fully-formed characters. To feel real, these people need to have wants, dreams, needs, parents, histories, hopes for the future, and so on. Many of these aspects may never play into the story directly, but can inform their decisions as you move them through the plot.
For example, your character’s relationship with their mother may inform their reactions to other female characters they encounter. Or, perhaps their past successes in life might engender overconfidence when they are first challenged by the antagonist.
As with all our lessons so far, you need to write this stuff down. Don’t try to hold the entire character in your head; that’s an easy way to write characters that are just you. Instead, we’re going to build a resource that you can reference any time one of your characters comes into conflict.
There are numerous sources for character interview online. Just search for “character questionnaire” and you’ll find dozens. Here, we’ve distilled some of them down to a manageable 20 questions.
Take our questionnaire and fill it out for your protagonist. Beginning the personification of your characters in these questionnaires is a good idea – it helps you take on their voice – so try framing your answers in the first person. If you feel compelled to add more questions to the questionnaire, do it! The more expansive your questionnaire gets, the better.
Once you’ve finished your primary questionnaire, repeat the process for your supporting characters and antagonist. When these are complete, you can start asking interactive questions of yourself to establish a deeper understanding of your character’s relationships.
For example: What does Character A think Character B will do when they found out their secret?
This level of abstraction (i.e. putting yourself in the characters’ minds as they think about another character’s possible reaction) will get you thinking about how your characters will react to one another during their potential conflicts and relationships.
By completing these questionnaires, you’ll have built a repertoire of background, biography, and behavioural traits for every character in your story. These questionnaires will form the basis of a character bible, and inform you when your characters are faced with the situations that your story will place them in.