Character Development: A Guide for Screenwriters

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Photo Source: “Atlanta” Credit: Guy D'Alema/FX

Whether they’re humans, supernatural creatures, heroes, or villains, fully developed characters drive narratives. The art of character development is essential to crafting characters that audiences find relatable and compelling. Here are the top tips for writing character development, with insights from experienced screenwriters in the entertainment industry.


What is character development?

Barney Stinson

“How I Met Your Mother” Courtesy CBS

Character development is the art of creating well-rounded, multifaceted characters. Like real-world people, characters should have backstories, dreams, and goals that make them seek certain relationships and behave in specific ways. Ultimately, fleshing out characters and developing their unique personalities builds character arcs, which are vital components of any narrative. 

Although the extent of character development may vary across genres—an explosive action movie likely doesn’t require as robust a character arc as a thoughtful character study—character behavior, reactions, decisions, weaknesses, and strengths propel the story forward. 

“Character development is desire development,” says screenwriter Jeff Arch (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “Complete Guide to Guys”). “Just like with humans, when a character has a strong enough ‘why,’ everything the story throws at them gives them a chance to dig deeper into their resources. They solve the problems they created for themselves by going after something they wanted in the first place. So, follow the desire line and constantly ask, ‘Given things as they are right now, and given what the character wants and how badly they want it, what’s the best way to proceed from here?’ ”

Why is character development important?

Cha Cha Real Smooth

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” Courtesy Apple TV+

Character development gives meaning to a story and its characters, encouraging viewers to engage with the narrative.

It provides narrative meaning

Characters push the plot and story forward. Suppose you film a landscape with mountains, trees, and the sky. Occasionally, a cloud rolls by, and wind brushes the trees. Then a bird flies in, perches on a branch, eats a berry, and flies off. Day turns to night, and the movie ends. The movie is about a day in nature, but without having any character development or at least a narrator, it lacks a story. However, what if the bird encounters a snake who also wants the berry—or, worse, wants to eat the bird? Also, what if it’s winter and that’s the last berry left? The bird must decide: Is it worth risking his life to get the berry, or would he rather fly away and risk starvation? The bird just experienced character development, and its story gained meaning.

Characters need purpose

To develop a character, you must fully understand their purpose. Why include the character at all? A character’s purpose shapes their unique characteristics, the way they talk and act, and their relationships with other characters. 

Audiences connect to developed characters

Well-developed characters help the audience experience a film’s storyworld. No matter the plot or genre of the film, viewers relate to characters, meaning that good character development is necessary for good storytelling.

How to develop a character

Snowfall“Snowfall” Credit: MIcksaw

To develop a character, you must identify their type; create a profile; identify backstory, struggles, motivation, and goals; and use their personal traits and moral compass to determine a character arc. If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to develop memorable and relatable characters and master the art of character development.

1. Identify the type of character

Characters fall under three categories: lead, supporting, and minor. The first step to developing characters is knowing which roles they play. 

  • Lead: Lead characters, or protagonists, drive the story with their actions and emotional progress. They appear in almost every scene and must be well-developed with a thorough backstory. Audiences relate to this character the most because they follow along and support their journey.
  • Supporting: Supporting characters either help your main character or become an obstacle. Whether they’re sidekicks, comic relief, or nemeses, their goal is to propel protagonists deeper into their own character arcs. Supporting characters might appear throughout the entire story or only in necessary scenes. While their backstories may be less robust than lead characters, they should still be complex and realistic. 
  • Minor: Minor characters don’t require a full backstory, but they need clearly defined personalities and motivations that drive their behavior.

2. Create a character profile

Create a profile for every character in your narrative that includes:

  • Demographics such as gender, race, age, sexual orientation, location, and political and religious beliefs
  • What they do for a living
  • Marital status
  • Economical/social status
  • Special abilities or disabilities
  • Their physical appearance (including how they dress) 

“A few key questions I try to ask myself are: What does this character most want, and what do they need (to learn), i.e., how might they need to grow in order to get it?” says screenwriter Diane Drake (“What Women Want,” “Only You,” What Men Want”). "Also, what is their general worldview or essence of how they show up? Are they a cynic, romantic, optimist, or pessimist? Finally, I try to get to the heart of what makes them tick—what do they love, what do they hate, and what are they afraid of?”

Establishing these details will allow for a clear idea of who your character is when the audience meets them. For example, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” is a young girl who lives in Kansas with her family and dog. She is innocent and kind, but dreams of escaping the drudgery of her daily existence.

3. Consider backstory and struggles

A character’s backstory is what happened to them before the audience meets them. You don’t need to write out their entire life story (unless it’s necessary to your story, like in biopics), but be sure to consider any events that strongly impacted your character, both positively and negatively. These events, when combined with their character motivation, create their internal struggles. 

4. Establish external and internal goals

Characters should be driven by goals—even if those goals are less than purpose-driven, such as Seth in “Superbad,” whose primary goals are to get laid at a party and to stay close with his best friend, Evan. 

  • External: External goals are what the characters need to accomplish to resolve the immediate issue presented by the inciting incident
  • Internal: Internal goals drive characters emotionally and represent what they need to attain fulfillment. They are usually tied to a film’s theme, such as redemption or doing something for the greater good. To return to the "Superbad" example, Seth's not-so-wholesome external goal actually represents his internal goal of not being left alone after graduation. 

It’s important not only to create goals for the characters but to connect a reason for these goals. Establish why the character wants these goals, how they’ll go about getting them, and what’s at stake if they cannot accomplish their goals. 

5. Refine and revise

As you write your characters, you’ll often find that new aspects and layers surface. Think of your characters as real, living people who react and change to the things they experience. Doing so will allow you to create characters who are whole, complex, fully developed, and able to take the audience on a journey. In particular, consider their evolving:

  • Character traits: A character’s personality and behavioral nuances should change in response to the things they experience. In “Inside Out,” Riley (and Joy) must learn to embrace the bad along with the good in order to have a more honest, holistic life experience. 
  • Moral compass: The character’s belief system may change over time. For example, Derek in “American History X” changes from being a neo-Nazi to being a compassionate person who understands that race is not an indicator of the soul. 
  • Character arc: These elements inform the character arc—or the transformation a character experiences as a mix of their traits—their sense of morality, struggles, and attempts to reach their goals.

Examples of effective character development

Rose, Travis, ThanosParamount Pictures/Columbia Pictures/Disney

From heroes to villains, side characters to antiheroes, effectively developed characters make for watchable and wonderful entertainment. 

  • Rose, “Titanic” (1997): In James Cameron’s classic romance drama, Kate Winslet’s lead character is headstrong and passionate (character traits). She is engaged to marry a man (external goal) to keep her mother and herself from financial ruin and exclusion from upper-class society. Her real desire is to escape the constraints of society (internal goal), but she feels obligated to stay by her mother’s side (internal struggle). When she meets Jack (a supporting character that becomes a romantic interest), she overcomes feeling obligated to her mother and society and lives her life the way she truly desires (character arc).
  • Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver” (1976): This Martin Scorsese masterpiece presents a conflicted, fuming antihero with a tumultuous backstory. Screenwriter Paul Schrader touches on Travis’ tour in Vietnam—but only enough to give us a reason for his anger (internal struggle). During the course of the film, Travis becomes increasingly paranoid and violent, all while attempting to save an underage sex worker (external goal). Besides that one good deed, his actions are motivated by delusion, making him one of the most interesting characters in cinematic history.
  • Thanos, “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018): Marvel’s superhero blockbuster shows that character development for antagonists is just as important as it is for protagonists. The villain Thanos possesses clear character traits, such as being philosophical, calculated, and manipulative. He sets out to destroy half of the universe (external goal) to bring balance to the universe (internal goal). To succeed, he must give up the thing he loves the most—his adopted daughter, Gamora (internal struggle/evolving moral compass).

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