by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
It’s easy to become impatient when writing a script. Many of us type FADE IN on the first day we have an idea for a story. Granted, there are some writers who actually work successfully that way. But for most of us, writing is a slow, painful process that requires a lot of work before we even open up Final Draft.
Having taught and lectured on story for more than ten years now, I have come to the conviction that character is usually the best place to start when beginning the process of writing a script. A trend that I’ve noticed the past few years with many new writers is the tendency to rush through the character process in order to quickly get to the fascinating concept that their story is based around. Sometimes a writer is half way through writing their story before their character has an occupation, a backstory, or even a name.
While it is not required that you begin with a character before developing your concept, the character work really should be done at some point in your process. Beginning with a solid human base (even if your character isn’t human) can make characters, and thus their stories, feel more real.
One of the deepest philosophical ideas we confront when we tell stories is what it means to be human. Wrapping our characters in detailed flesh when creating a story is one of the surest way to give the script believability, emotional resonance, and nuance. Here is a seven-day approach for how to develop a great character ready for their journey through 120 pages.
DAY ONE – GIVE THEM A NAME
Some writers flippantly choose a name for their character off the top of their head. Other writers methodically craft a name with layers of meaning. The Alien franchise has often relied on one-word names for their characters, like Daniels or Ripley. Sometimes simple one-syllable first and last names, like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, speak to the hard edge the character embodies. Other times playful names, like Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, seem to hint at the characteristics of a character. Regardless of what works best for your story, actually think about the name of your protagonist. Why does this name you have given her or him best suit them? One of the first things we learn about someone when we meet them is their name. This is helpful when meeting our characters, too.
DAY TWO – GIVE THEM A JOB
Even if this detail is unrelated to the story you are telling, as may be the case in a horror film or romantic comedy, establishing this in your own mind as the writer is important for making the character feel real. Remember, being a student or a parent is just as much of a job as being a doctor or lawyer. Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise captains ships. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor in Arrival. Mia Dolan is a barista in La La Land. All loosely connect to the story they are a part of, but flesh out who these characters are.
DAY THREE – GIVE THEM A QUIRK
Quirks come in many forms. While we usually think of them in terms of an odd habit — like collecting heavily used forks from thrift stores — there are a number of different ways to make your character uniquely human. Giving the protagonist a unique external flaw, either in appearance or behavior, is one method, especially when that flaw speaks to an inner need. Giving the character a “ghost” from their past that haunts their present is another.
Quirks don’t have to be dark either. Having a character constantly chomping on Flintstones vitamins is funny, as we all can relate to their chewy tastiness, but it also speaks to the character’s desire for health. Peter Quill’s penchant for 80s music in Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but also speaks to his connection to his dead mother. Jimmy McGill seems to enjoy amateur video production, which speaks to his desperation to be known at any cost on Better Call Saul. Sheldon Cooper is a character built almost completely around quirks on The Big Bang Theory.
DAY FOUR – GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO LOVE
What a character loves can be a person, place, or thing. It can even be a feeling or an idea. Many of the most impactful characters have been those that loved themselves above all else. What your character loves will likely be connected to some sort of sacrifice they should be challenged to make in your story. The protagonist may or may not decide to give up what they love, but they should be forced into making that decision at some point.
Celeste Wright is forced to sacrifice the comfortable life she loves in order to protect herself and her children in Big Little Lies. In Manchester By the Sea, Lee Chandler gives up the independence he loves for something he loves more – family. In Going in Style, the main characters go to even greater lengths for the ones they love. Using family in general, or a specific family member, can be a powerful force of love to give your character, as love of family is a universally-understood motivator.
DAY FIVE – GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO HATE
Knowing what your character despises can be as powerful as knowing what they love. This also may take the form of a person, place, thing, or more abstract idea. What your character hates will likely come into contact with what she loves, driving her to action.
In Logan, our protagonist’s love and concern for himself is outweighed by his hate of injustice. Amy hates what she believes is the unrealistic expectation of monogamy in Trainwreck. In Rogue One, Jyn Erso must confront her hate for Orson Krennic, the man responsible for the death of her mother.
DAY SIX – GIVE THEM A WANT
Knowing what a character wants and why they want it is perhaps the most interesting thing we can reveal about any character. Desire and motivation are two of the core principles that we relate to as humans. The earlier your audience understands what your character wants and why they want it, the faster their engagement will be. Determining this early on in your character development and story process saves hours of meandering later.
Greg desperately wants to get to a video game convention instead of Meemaw’s 90th birthday celebration in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. In Boss Baby, our protagonist wants to put a stop to the plot of the CEO of Puppy Co. Maximo wants true love after having made a career of seducing women in How to be a Latin Lover.
DAY SEVEN – GIVE THEM A NEED
Often times, what a character needs is more important than what they want. Your character may or may not be aware of what he or she needs, but as the writer we must know. In most genres, the protagonist gets what they need, regardless of whether they get what they want. However, this is not always the case. Knowing up front what it is that your character truly needs can help as you begin crafting an outline for the span of the story, and especially how it will end.
Bridget Jones often pines after one man, when the other is who she truly needs. In Chuck, the protagonist wants success as a boxer, but he needs to accept himself. Chris wants to make things work with his girlfriend and her parents, but what he needs is to Get Out, as the title suggests.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.