Character construction is a fascinating artistic process, whether you’re writing them for film, television, or theater—or delivering them as an actor onstage, onscreen, or in voiceover. Here are the most essential tips for infusing originality into fictional figures, finding their voices, and maintaining their distinction.
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in “Empire” Courtesy Fox
Aspiring professional storytellers might be sick of hearing this advice, but it doesn’t make it any less true: The more familiar your starting point, the easier it is to launch a plot and put yourself in your characters’ shoes.
Especially when it comes to crafting the voices of different characters, knowing your own voice is an important first step. What interests you? What kinds of stories are you looking to tell? How can different characters help you tell them?
Maybe there’s a character who inhabits your best qualities, and another who exemplifies your worst. Your story’s circumstances matter less than the humanity of the figures in that story. Even if you’re writing about an ancient time or fantastical place, your players feel relatable because you’ve connected them to emotional realities. The trick is to remember that every invention of yours—from full-fledged characters to your story’s tiniest details—is a reflection of you. So as the ancient Greeks said, “Know thyself.”
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in “The Walking Dead” Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Bringing different, three-dimensional characters to life requires understanding them deeply, so it can help to create biographies and outlines for each. (Keep in mind that those details may change throughout the writing process.) Think of each bio or outline as an elevator pitch: If someone were to ask you what one of your characters is like, can you concisely and cohesively describe them?
When constructing a character, start with the “W” questions: Who, what, when, where, and why? By answering each of the below, you’ll come closer to reaching “how” this character behaves and speaks.
- Who: The simplest question—what is your character’s name?
- What: What’s the first thing to know about them? Do they have a title or occupation or primary activity?
- When: When, in the grand scheme of time, was your character born? And how old are they when introduced to the story?
- Where: Determining where a character was born, which may differ from where they are now, is crucial to unlocking helpful details about them.
- Why: This question can take many forms, from why a character behaves the way they do to a wider reflection of their role in a story.
These questions do not factor into a story’s events just yet. Try removing your plot from the equation and asking, “Who is my character at face value?” Then identify their objectives and intentions—both the overarching super-objective (what does this character fundamentally want throughout this story?) and specific wants in a scene or moment (what’s standing in their way, and how do they react?). By knowing where someone is coming from, you can better find where they’re going.
When a character is the main storyteller, don’t forget to consider the standpoint of your audience—what might put them at the edge of their seat or let them know they’re in good hands? How can your fictional creation use their voice to shake up a plot, introduce thorny nuances, and upend their expectations? “Arrested Development” creator Mitchell Hurwitz has a handy shortcut to get an audience to endear themselves to a character: Give the character a distinct sense of humor. “You can get a lot done if they’re laughing,” he shared with Backstage.
Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in “Ozark” Courtesy Netflix
Ever heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words”? A character isn’t just their dialogue, and any play or screenplay consisting of only spoken words is missing out on essential storytelling tools. Screen or stage directions can reveal plenty about a story and its players.
During a dialogue exchange or monologue, try teasing out your speaker’s subtext—what they’re really saying, beneath what they’re actually saying, and how that might manifest in their movements or gestures. That tension or shift can be thrilling.
“Show, don’t tell” is the go-to motto for creators in every medium for a reason. Writers must cut any unnecessary explanations (hint: most spoken exposition is extraneous, and can be conveyed in less obvious ways), while actors must consider subtext. Everyday people don’t say precisely or only what they mean. If writers and actors want to accurately reflect humanity, they must remember that what a character doesn’t say is as important, if not more so, than what they do say.
Heath Ledger as Joker in “The Dark Knight” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Here’s an easy three-step way to tell whether your character’s voice is distinct:
- Find someone you trust to give you honest feedback.
- Give that person a sample of your script with the character names obscured for dialogue.
- See if your reader can differentiate between your characters based only on what they’re saying and how they say it.
Can somebody new to this story immediately tell who’s who? If not, you’re not showing enough personality through your characters’ voices.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in “Sopranos” Courtesy HBO
Characters do exist on the page, but they’re really destined for a live performance on a stage or recorded on camera. If you’re writing words that aren’t designed for speaking aloud, you’re writing a novel.
Try speaking a character’s dialogue out loud as you draft and edit. This applies to writers even if they have no acting experience. Give your characters a literal voice as you’re creating them. Something in your delivery might surprise you that then sharpens or redirects the story.
Actors, of course, are very familiar with finding a character by speaking their words and embodying their actions. It’s after asking the who, what, when, where, and why questions that creators might factor in the literal voice: Does this character have a dialect or accent? Note that such a detail should embellish, rather than form the entire basis of, a character’s qualities.
Lucille Ball and Desi Armaz - Lucy and Desi Courtesy Amazon Studios
Screenwriting or playwriting can be a solo venture, but it doesn’t have to be. Use trusted friends and colleagues to bounce ideas off of, or ask for feedback on characters you’re developing. If you’re a writer hoping to hone the way a character sounds by hearing them (see above), pair up with an actor who might be a great fit for the part. Many producers actually come to understand written characters more as they audition performers who each bring their take to the role.
Most mediums in the entertainment industry require a massive group effort—and this is especially true for longform storytelling like TV. “Pose” writer-producer Janet Mock told Backstage her mission in creating the FX series was to prove trans women are “not a monolith,” so the writers’ room needed a variety of contributors.
“What different voices will we give them? What different perspectives on life and transition and love and sex and family will we imbue into these characters?” Mock said. “The great challenge for me was, number one, the forced collaboration.... There’s at least three other voices there jumping in and building upon my pitch or pitching an idea, and then me building upon them. It’s so collaborative.”
Bryan Cranston as Walter White Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Of course, the best way to grow a skillset—whether that’s developing a character’s voice on the page, on-camera, or onstage—is to study up. Ask any seasoned professional in the biz for advice, and they’ll tell you to keep doing your research, reading scripts, and seeing their final products. “There are a few simple things that are really worth doing and cost nothing. Reading scripts, particularly in the genre you’re planning to write in, will help you get to grips with the different formal elements,” Gregor Sharp, a commissioning editor and writer at the BBC, shared with Backstage.
If formal education like a screenwriting BFA or acting MFA or M.A. is not part of your career plan, there are countless resources and opportunities available to creators looking to study character construction. The book “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder is a best-selling resource for screenwriters at all career levels. The same goes for “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field, which focuses especially on writing in the world of Hollywood. Playwrights often cite “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri and the straightforward “Playwriting for Dummies” by Angelo Parra as influences. (Actors should check out these books for a starting point.)
Jon Hamm as Don Draper Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
Practice screenwriting enough and all of the above character development techniques will become second nature. “The structural part is easy,” writer Amanda Prahl told Backstage. Characters’ voices, she said, are what steadily emerge throughout both individual projects and an overall career. “The more time you spend with characters, the more you can get a feel for their speech rhythms, their personalities, how much they say what they mean or hold their cards close to their chest, and more.”
And don’t listen to that doubting, self-editing voice in your head. “If you just take the pressure off yourself and sit down regularly, you’ll have something,” actor and playwright Halley Feiffer told Backstage. She said that she still gets distressed looking back at first drafts, “but there was a kernel of a good idea in there. It needed to be dumb and bad for a while to get good.”
By understanding how to give a character their distinct voice and adding that skill to your artistic toolkit, you’re participating in the long legacy of artists bringing someone to life.