Know Your Characters Before Writing

If you start writing a screenplay without knowing your characters, you’ll most likely create generic dialogue that could be spoken by anybody. That crates bland, dull, boring characters.

What you need to do is identify who your characters are before you start writing. The traditional way writers get to know their characters is to write a biography, but that’s time-consuming. A much faster way is to simply associate each of your main characters to someone you know in your own life, or a public figure you think you know.

By identifying a character to someone you know, you’ll already have a much better idea how they might respond and say something.

Think of all the iconic sayings from popular movies and imagine an entirely different character saying the same line but in their own style. In “The Terminator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line as he leaves the police station is, “I’ll be back.”

Since Arnold plays a robotic killer, his sparse words and phrasing clearly defines who is speaking. Imagine a surfer dude character like Pauly Shore saying that same line but in his unique style. He might say something like, “Bro, I’ll be back soon.”

The point is that everyone has a distinct way of speaking, even if it’s just answering yes or no. One character might say ,”Yes,” another might say, “Sure,” while still another might say, “Okay, man” or “Yep.”

Too often, novice screenwriters focus on dialogue as a way to provide information to the audience. That creates bland, phony dialogue. What dialogue should do is reveal character while advancing each character’s goals.

In “The Terminator,” Arnold says, “I’ll be back” as a way to foreshadow what he’s about to do, which is drive his car through the police station front door. That dialogue has nothing to do with giving information to the user about the story but about creating suspense on what’s going to happen next.

Go through each dialogue in your screenplay and ask yourself the following:

  • Is this dialogue spoken in such a way to clearly identify the character saying it?
  • Is this dialogue just providing information to the audience? If so, it probably doesn’t belong.
  • Does the dialogue move the character’s goals forward?
  • Is the dialogue a way for the character to get what they want?

When Arnold says, “I’ll be back” to the police officers in “The Terminator,” he’s not just saying good-bye. He’s warning the police that he’s going to get what he wants, which is to get into the police station to look for the person he wants to kill.

Dialogue should never be direct in telling you exactly what’s going on. Instead, make dialogue mysterious to make us actively involved in interpreting the words. “I’ll be back” sounds just a simple good-bye in “The Terminator,” but a few seconds later we discover that it was actually a warning.

A poorly written version of that same dialogue might be, “I’m coming back in my car to ram the police station.”

Notice how that line drains the scene of any tension and suspense by simply stating exactly what that dialogue means. When dialogue tells the audience information, it leaves the audience in a passive situation where they’re being spoon-fed the story. Passive audiences tend to get bored.

Keeping dialogue mysterious while also advancing each character’s agenda makes the audience active so they want to interpret the dialogue, and active audiences stay emotionally involved.

So rewrite your dialogue and study it carefully. What your characters say is crucial to making your screenplay successful.

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