How to Do Character Development In Screenplay

Is there a movie or TV show you like to watch because of the characters? 

That’s probably because the screenwriter nailed character development in his/her screenplay.

👉 Proper character development in a screenplay involves writing a compelling character arc to complement a good plot.

Character arcs are essential elements to a good plot, that’s likened to the beating heart of the screenplay.

Think of filmmaking like painting, and the characters as the paintbrush that fills the empty canvas. 

Characters turn vision into reality, adding emotion to a story and advancing the plot. Character development is the personality journey of a character in the screenplay that reveals to viewers what kind of person he or she is.

It entails creating characters of relevance and purpose in the storyline.

How do you create a character that the audience can grow to love, understand, feel sorry for, or even hate his guts, depending on his purpose in the plot? 

Here are 3 ways to nail character development in your screenplay

Using dialogue to show how they speak

Readers are investing their time in the movie, and they’d like to understand what makes the characters tick.

Characters’ personalities surface as they talk with other people. Well executed dialogue is a powerful communication tool, bringing to light a character’s feelings and thoughts from how they speak and through their tones.

Dialogue can reveal desires and motives, based on what the character says or doesn’t say.

Mention of experiences, places, the use of certain dialects.

An accent can give hints to the audience about the person’s background without talking about it explicitly.

The personality of the character can come out in a variety of ways in dialogue.

For example, if a character is fond of using words like “excuse me, pardon” and other niceties, the viewers get the impression of a polite and upstanding character.

Distrust can be communicated through passive-aggressiveness, while one character constantly speaking over another can portray impatience or dislike.

In addition to personal traits, dialogue can also illustrate the power dynamics between characters. Here’s a sample conversation to demonstrate. 

🗨️ “Richard, did you take the turkey out of the freezer?”

🗨️ “I’m sorry Mrs. Anderson, it slipped my mind”

🗨️ “You know you’re going to have to go to the store and get a fresh one.”

🗨️ “Mrs. Anderson, can’t we just thaw it in the microwave”

🗨️ “No Richard, I don’t like microwave food”

Mrs. Anderson constantly refers to Richard by his first name while the latter uses a formal name.

And even from the way the conversation progresses, it is clear that Mrs. Anderson is the more powerful character in this exchange for some reason that will unfold as the plot moves on.

Here’s another example from the movie The Dark Knight. In this scene, the hero Batman interrogates the antagonist Joker in a police station:

And here it is on the movie screen:

Despite being the prisoner and trapped in a police station, Joker appears to have the upper hand. While Batman fumes with anger, the Joker relishes the power he has on Batman.

He taunts him with words and even encourages the beat down. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie that’s still talked about a decade after the release of the movie.

From this scene, you can see the internal conflict in Batman – save the girl or save Harvey Dent?

When you pair great actors with great dialogues, you end up with movie magic.

Using actions for character development

✔️ Show, don’t tell. 

This is true when handling with exposition, and also applicable when it comes to character development in a screenplay.

Character development should be spread out beyond dialogue to avoid the scenes playing out like CNN interviews.

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words, and they can tell the audience a lot about the character before he or she even utters a word.

Emotional actions can make the viewers understand how the character is feeling at the point in time.

For instance, when someone is angry and trying to hide it, they may clench their hand into a fist for a brief moment.

Showing this action allows the audience to understand how the person perceived what he heard.

Stuttering, sweating, and pacing can put across feelings of nervousness. Actions can also paint personality.

For example, a man giving up his place in line for a pregnant woman at a packed fast-food joint demonstrates kindness.

You can learn a lot from a person from what they do rather than what they say, and that applies heavily in screenwriting.

Through little movements that can be picked up by the audience, good writers can strongly communicate in-depth messages about how a character is wired. 

For example, throughout the Batman movies and TV shows, one of the superhero’s greatest adversaries “The Joker” constantly laughs when it’s unnatural, when he’s doing something evil, and when it’s outright not necessary.

🤔 What does that say about the character?

Probably that everything’s not alright upstairs, that he’s mentally unstable.

Character development can also happen in the way two people go about doing the same thing differently.

🎥🎥 Picture this:

In a scene where two kids are running to school, the older brother trespasses to take a shortcut while the other follows the longer route.

That can tell the audience that one sibling is a stickler for the rules, but the other, not so much.

Henceforth, we can know what behavior to expect from each brother.

One of the greatest moments in cinema history is the Rocky montage.

When you’re watching a Rocky montage, you see the hero go through rigorous training in preparation for the big fight.

Through his training, you can feel the pain and the sweat he goes through. You could also see the character grow stronger and faster in preparation for his big fight.

It’s great writing and no wonder Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay won an Oscar.

Here’s the clip from the original Rocky. And of course, great music helps —

Appearance- how they dress, where they live, etc.

Imagine a movie about a family with three very different kids. The first scene shows one kid sat with a racket in hand, polishing it.

Beneath him is a floor covered by tennis balls and above that, a trophy cabinet full to the brim.

Then comes up the next scene showing the second sibling, in an organized room with a library of books behind him and one in hand.

The third kid appears in the following scene, passed out on his bed with a not-so-pleasing report card dangling from a table beside a gaming console.

Appearance says a lot before a character does anything or speaks and this opening sequence is proof of that.

What is your perception of each child and their personality?

Your answer is something probably along the lines of —

The first child is an athlete and good at it and the second is an academic with a penchant for the books.

Both children seem obsessive. The third kid comes off as lazy because of his grades and that he is asleep when the others aren’t.

How a character dresses also gives insight into his personality.

For instance, a combination of loud makeup and gaudy clothes hint that the character loves to go out, and may be a party animal and an extrovert.

A girl that loves long skirts with no cleavage, tells the audience that person is more conservative and may come from such a background.

Tattoos meanwhile paint a sense of a daring and adventurous personality.

In the hit-sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is constantly dressed up in a suit, and in one episode we learn he even has a pajama suit for bedtime.

Viewers get the feeling of someone who likes to show off, and that’s the case when we get to know more about Barney.

On the opposite end of Barney Stinson, we have the legendary man they call “the Dude” from Big Lebowski.

The Dude often walks around in his pajamas, even if he is meeting with a business executive.

From his appearance, you can instantly tell he’s a slob who doesn’t have a care in the world what the world thinks.

He just wants the money for his damn rug!

Here’s a quick vignette of the Dude from the classic Big Lebowski:

The power of character development

A screenplay is only as good as its character development, and there are multiple ways to execute good character development. 

Mixing up your options is an excellent way to spread out personality and relevant plot points while not overwhelming the audience.

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