The Character Approach

There are lot of approaches one can take when creating a screenplay.

There's the Sequence Approach, the Crap Draft Approach, the Notecard Approach. We’ve talked about the Audience Approach and the Screenplay Ideal approach.

What if you decided to take all the character types that you liked, in movies and books and entertainment of all kinds — and start with them?

It's an intriguing idea. Movies are made up of moments that we love — but those moments never exist in a vacuum. They all come from the interactions of unique and interesting characters. A chemistry, a rapport, sometimes even just a look or a reaction between characters turns out engaging and special — and how on earth could one predict something like that beforehand?

A lot of writers — most writers, perhaps — take a Premise Approach. They think up the premise first, and then, hopefully, come up with interesting characters to inhabit the world of that premise. It's a pretty random approach, almost guaranteed to generate weak characters who will require many drafts of revision before they begin to come alive.

So, start with your characters!

There are lots of characters I like. The big lummox who's actually a pussycat. The gruff, grumpy, but good-hearted guy. The ultra-loyal second banana who'll do anything for his buddy. The starry-eyed, enthusiastic ingenue. The wise-cracking bad guy. The hooker with the heart of gold. The johnny-come-lately. The misunderstood genius. The dork.

You probably have a sense of how well you could write your favorite characters. Your favorite characters are probably a lot like you... so what they say will be the things you often wished you could say. That alone can propel you to new heights of dialogue genius.


Let's pick a random three: the grumpy but good guy — the starry-eyed ingenue — the wise-cracking bad guy.

Is it even possible to generate a premise purely from characters?

That's a good question.

Think about the characters. Mix 'em up. Switch 'em around. Who's allied with who? Is the ingenue with the grumpy but good guy or with the wise-cracking bad guy? Or neither? Do some of them start out allied, then have a falling out? Is the ingenue investigating one or the other? Are the two men against each other and she comes between them? Or is she the bad guy and the wise-cracking bad guy the "good guy" and the grumpy but good guy the one that comes between them?

The configurations are endless. You can generate intriguing ideas just by playing against type — the wise-cracking bad guy forced to do good. The grumpy but good guy forced to do something truly evil. The starry eyed ingenue bent on world destruction!

It could literally be anything. But you find a configuration you like and take it from there.

Then — work on your biographies. Let your mind run, but think of it in terms of the relationships. The beauty of this approach is that by the time all this rubbing together of these characters produces the sparks that generate a premise, your script will already be tightly integrated on a character level.

And characters are what drive a movie — and what get a movie made. This latter consideration is very important. If you want to get your movie made, you must write actor-bait. If a script with a beautifully written role or roles comes to the attention of an actor or agent, then you may very well find yourself with a champion who can get it made against all odds, no matter what the premise is.

Really, in the end, it doesn't even matter what the premise is, provided your characters are strong, their relationship is strong, and the roles themselves are crackling with energy and heat.

So the next time you're thinking up what to write next, start thinking about those faces — those characters you've loved over the years. What would happen if you put this one... with that one? Or these two... with that other one? Or these three together...?

Then, just watch the ideas start to flow!

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