Character Character Character — Let’s Talk Building Characters


One of the most common problems I’ve seen when reading pilots (or scripts in general) is that characters aren’t properly defined. People are unique, yet in the script all of the dialogue sounds the same, none of the characters do anything different, and you could swap the names about and nobody would notice the difference. But here’s the thing: plot only matters if it’s affecting characters we care about. If they’re just ciphers for exposition then every action becomes boring.

Here are some of my TOP TIPS (stolen from far better writers) for defining characters in a pilot:

Know Their History

Some people build detailed backstories, some use questionnaires, some just keep it simple, but you should know who your character WAS to get into their head. If you know their past, then you’ll know how they’ll react to things. In Lost, Jack has a history of wanting to fix people, which we see with his heroic actions after the crash and his stitching up of Kate.

Homework: next time you plan a pilot, write a prose backstory for your character, going into as much detail as you feel happy with.

People Talk Differently

Is your character eloquent or thick? Are they a pop culture fanatic or a book nerd? Are they sarcastic or dry? Do they speechify or keep it blunt? The things your character says shouldn’t be the same thing another character says. For instance, just look at the contrast in Person of Interest: you’ve got Finch, who’s more emotional and likes to talk, who is completely the opposite of the concise and unemotional Reese. They read totally different on the page, and you’d NEVER confuse the two. In Lost, snippy sarcastic Charlie wouldn’t read the same as offensively blunt Sawyer or stoic Jack or creepy Locke or rambling Hurley.

Homework: jot down 5 characteristics your character would display, either negative or positive, then constantly refer back to them when writing your pilot.

Give Them A Quirk

Quirks aren’t a replacement for character depth, but giving each character their own “thing” acts as a handy totem for the reader to quickly remember who is who. It makes them instantly memorable. Some people call these “tags”. It can be anything from a type of clothing they wear (Frank’s comedy hats in 30 Rock), to something they always bring up no matter what the discussion (Walter’s food obsession in Fringe), to a habit that they have (Bert Cooper’s love of Japanese culture with the Bonsai trees and making people remove their shoes in Mad Men).

Homework: think about your family/friends/school/workplace and jot down whatever quirks the people display, and then give them to your characters.

Show Them In Action

There’s no better way to define your character by showing them in action. Don’t just tell us what the character is like, immediately show them in action. It’ll be far more memorable, and it sets the tone for the script. In Fringe, we first meet Peter as he’s scamming a couple of Iraqi men (and showing his charm and intelligence, too). Olivia’s voiceover tells us who he is, and then we SEE IT in action. Show, don’t tell (or, combine the two).

Homework: look through every scene where you introduce a character and ask yourself: what is the character doing that defines them as unique?

Give Them Contrasting Beliefs

No surprise here: people believe in wildly different things. Religion, politics, sport, the opposite sex, life, death, aliens, marriage, taxes — if there’s a topic, we’ll find something to argue about. Think about what your characters believe in, and then make sure they’re rubbing up against their polar opposites. Conflict is the key to great drama, so don’t make it easy for them. Give them a passion, and then ensure there’s someone whose mission statement is to find that passion stupid. The most obvious example is the skeptic (Scully) and the believer (Mulder) on The X-Files.

Homework: make a checklist of major topics (such as the ones mentioned at the start of the previous paragraph) and jot down your character’s beliefs about each one.

Give Them A “Moment”

Make sure each of your main characters has their own “moment” in your pilot. Their big speech, their big heroic action, their funny scene, their declaration of love, their cool stunt, their amazing escape. Something memorable that also defines who they are (which goes back to the Show Them In Action heading). In Lost, we see Jack’s heroism after the crash, we see Sawyer shooting the polar bear, we see Sayid fix the transceiver, Locke smiles with the orange in his mouth, Shannon translates the French message, etc. It doesn’t always have to be huge, but it should be important and/or memorable.

Homework: go through each main character in your outline/pilot and see what scenes they’re in and what they do, one by one. Do they have their own “moment”?

Questions, comments, additions, disagreements… discuss this post in our COMMUNITY FORUMS