How to Create Stronger Characters (Without Writing Lots of Biography)

There’s an excellent story writing book called “27 Essential Principles of Story” by Daniel Joshua Rubin. One useful principle for developing characters is to identify the way they think, what they believe, and who they are at the core.

The standard way to develop characters is to write a biography about them such as where they went to school, what major traumatic incident may have shaped their lives, what career they might have, and so on. While creating a biography on each character can help you get a better idea who they are, it can also waste time creating irrelevant information that serves no purpose to your story.

After all, knowing that your character played volleyball in high school probably won’t help your story much unless your story has some relation to volleyball or sports in general.

Instead of wasting time making up details that may largely be irrelevant, “27 Essential Principles of Story” suggests starting with four ideas:

  • What does the character look like
  • How does the character think
  • What does the character value and believe
  • Who is the character under pressure

Describing a character by appearance is easy, but crucial because a character’s appearance helps define who they are. For example, having a blond woman in a bikini as a nuclear scientist might not make sense at first, but this physical appearance means the woman is not only attractive, but smart as well, which likely made her tough to put up with people only attracted to her looks. Thus a character’s appearance, whatever it may be, can go a long way towards shaping who they are.

That goes into how the character thinks. When characters face a problem, how do they try to solve it? By cheating? By analyzing it like a puzzle or riddle? By smashing into it using brute force? The way characters react to problems and try to solve them can shape who they are.

Digging deeper, what do characters value and believe? Someone who tries to cheat when faced with a problem might think that they’re not good enough to succeed otherwise, or they might think that everyone cheats so they should too. What characters believe goes much further in defining how they react to anything.

Finally, what type of person is your character under pressure? Are they as tough as they appear? Are they stronger? Weaker? Cowardly?

So instead of burying yourself with mounds of trivial about each character, focus more on how they think, what they believe, and who they really are on the inside. Once you know this, then you’ll have a far better idea how to write a scene with this character.

What’s more important in defining a character in a screenplay? The fact that they played volleyball at the University of Minnesota or the fact that they believe everyone cheats so they can too?

When you wean yourself away from irrelevant and overwhelming details by writing biographies for each character, but focus on the driving forces of each character, you’ll find it’s far easier to write great scenes for your screenplay with characters who feel real, consistent, and alive.

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