Friday, June 11, 2010

Tip # 18: Character Development

By Anant Mathur (June 11, 2010)

I have often written about Character Development or lack there of in Hindi films. Changing an actor's look (giving him a beard or changing her hairstyle) doesn't mean he/she has become the character - there's more to it than that. I would like to elaborate further on the subject in this post.

Character Development is the gradual revelation of information about a character that the audience needs to know in order to understand the character’s motivations and intent.


It is very important to be realistic when developing a character for fiction. Look and learn from the environment around you. Watch how a bum on the street behaves or what a bus driver does, how a bartender serves alcohol, or how a taxi driver drives his cab. Each one of these people do things differently – heck, even two cabbies would drive a taxi differently.


When you’re a screenwriter it’s vital to have access to references. Today, the easiest way to do research is by going online – but whether it's books, internet, television, movies, music, your gym teacher or even your uncle Joe - anything could inspire you to develop a character.

I personally like to keep the latest Psychology text handy. Perhaps the most import aspect of developing a character is his/her emotional state. If the lead character is a drunkard, there are certain things this person will or won’t do based on his mental state. So, it becomes very important to understand how a drunkard feels and acts.

Another question that may need to be answered: Is he addicted to alcohol or just a one time drunk? An addict may have several reasons or a back story which may explain to us why he is in that emotional state. The best way to learn about this type of behaviour – aside from getting drunk yourself or having a drunkard in the family – is to take a look at a Psychology text book. A Psychology text will allow you to see the behaviour patterns of a person affected by alcoholism and other such diseases which will help you create a suitable character for your story.


Before writing a screenplay or story, it is very import to know your character. The first thing you should do is create a character profile.

On a piece of paper, write down the character’s Name, Age, Height, Eye color, Hair color. Also jot down these 3 questions: What is the major goal of this character? Why is this goal so important? Do any events in the characters past affect the importance of this goal? Lastly, explain your character’s life till now, situation with family, his motivations, his pet peeves - anything that you feel defines this character.

A few of things you write about your character may not be part of the final screenplay, but it is important to jot everything down, they will help you define the character’s personality and although the words may not be in the screenplay the spirit of the character will be based on them.


All of us are greatly influenced by our relationships. How is this character’s relationship with his family members? Are there certain values or behaviors the character has inherited from them? Is he rebelling against them? Let’s say there are two actors one’s father supported and encouraged him and the other’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, obviously both of them would’ve had different relationships with their families.

Does he have a funny sounding name or a funny nickname? If his friends call him “Mutt” it gives him a totally different persona than if they call him “Stinky.” Some people are embarrassed by their names or nick names, how does you character feel about his?

What does he do everyday? Unless you have a really boring script, chances are your character does something everyday. For example he goes to work, attends meetings, has lunch with co-workers, lands a new account or saves an old one. You should know what his schedule is so you can plan your story around it – perhaps terrorist take over the building, but is it while he’s in a meeting or eating lunch or having a cup of coffee – it’s important to know where he might be so you can write the next scene.

What are his pet peeves? A pet peeve could tell a lot about a character. Perhaps he gets irritated whenever he sees people who drive while talking on cell phones or while eating. This could reveal that he believes in driving safety.

Does your character have any bad habits? Is he addicted to anything other than alcohol? Perhaps he drives around and smashes up shops when no one is around. Perhaps he eats too many potato chips.

All stories involve some kind of complication(s) the character must overcome. Most of the time it’s the character's traits and personality that pull him through and show what he’s made of. Jett Rink becomes an oil tycoon in Giant because of his hard work and patience; he was dealt a certain hand and made the best of the opportunity. What’s your character's biggest strength?


There are many aspects of character development and your character could be as deep as someone you know in real life. These basic principles will guide you in strengthening your characters and coming up with a great story/screenplay.

Some writers like to go into even more detail than what I have mentioned above. If you would like to learn more about character development, I suggest you check out the following books:

Writer's Guide to Character Traits - Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D.
Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time - Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Story Structure Architect – Victoria Lynn Schmidt, PH.D.
Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint - Nancy Kress
Psychology (9th Edition) - David G. Myers
The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1 - William James
Psychology: Concepts and Applications - Jeffrey S. Nevid

© Anant Mathur. All Rights Reserved.

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