If you’re thinking about submitting your next script to a screenwriting contest but you really want to nail it this time, there’s one element you need to write perfectly: three dimensional characters.
Without believable, engaging, three dimensional characters whom we care about, the most intriguing plotline will fall flat. In other words, your characters are the most important aspect of your screenplay. Give your characters a real reason to do what they do, and the script reader will find meaning in them and remember them long after “fade out” and long after reading many other submissions in screenwriting contests.
A “three dimensional character” is just one of those screenplay terms, but how exactly do you create captivating, three dimensional characters?
Explore The Three Dimensions
There are three dimensions to any character: physical, psychological, and social.
Physically: how your character looks and sounds is a vital part of how the audience will perceive them. Body language and tone of voice influences the audience’s understanding of a character. It’s important to create a detailed, specific physique for your characters.
Psychologically: how your character behaves contributes to their image and to the storyline. Their confidence or temper or beliefs will add a layer to their character, which helps readers and audiences get a deeper understanding of who your characters are.
Socially: social traits include marital status, job, living situation, education, race, and any other social group they belong to. These associations convey more details about your character’s life and deepens the audience’s interpretation of both the character and their behavior throughout the story.
Create An Interesting Character
First of all, make your protagonist interesting. You want your readers to be invested in your hero so that they stay with them throughout the story.
How do you make a character interesting? Screenwriting websites suggest only two ways: through dialogue or through action.
Give your protagonist strong dialogue that reflects wit, intelligence, or charm. Or let them do things that reveal their humanity. An act of generosity or a display of humor which may have nothing to do with the problems being faced will show us layers of the character that keep us interested in the outcome of his struggle.
Make sure your characters have big problems that can be presented in emotionally-charged action or through powerful dialogue exchanges. That action and those dialogue scenes must involve emotional stakes for the protagonist, and those emotional stakes must explore and reveal the overall theme of your story.
Secondly, reveal who your character is “on the inside”. What they show to the outside world may only be a disguise. Give your character details that reveal what is going on inside. These can be physical characteristics, expressions, or habits that run counter to what he or she portrays to others. Remember to go beyond that as well. Make you character a professional at something but also add a tragic flaw to their personality. Remember how much of a genius Sherlock is…but how he’s also terrible when it comes to interacting and relating to other people. A strength balanced out by a flaw will make your character more sophisticated and layered.
One way to achieve this “interior layer” for your character is to write a complete biography before starting your screenplay. A simple screenwriting exercise in free association writing can produce pages of character notes and details to guide your writing and help you stay true to the characters and the choices they make as the plot evolves.
Let Your Character Be
Now, give your characters some space. Let them be without trying to press them into a mold or forcing them to behave according to your story arc.
As you write your character’s scene, let them act according to who they are (which you know in some detail if you’ve fleshed out a complete character biography) in any given circumstance. Don’t have your character behave as you would, but only as they would, based on their bio.
Writing your characters in this organic fashion requires that you truly know them to the point that you have an understanding that tells you what they would do in any given situation.
Who your characters are should dictate what your characters do. In that way, your story will unfold naturally and the character arcs that evolve will be true and believable. Believable and captivating characters hook readers, and a hooked script reader on a screenwriting contest jury is someone you definitely want on your side.
Give Your character The Mic
Concentrate on giving your characters their unique voice through dialogue that consistently moves the story forward. By now, your protagonist knows the objectives. Goals are set. Obstacles are identified. Everything your character says must be said with that in mind. Your character has purpose, and so should their words.
Well-written dialogue immediately tells the reader who your character is, what they want to do, and how they plan to do it. Your character’s traits will be quickly revealed through the words they speak. In screenplay terms, that’s a “unique voice”.
Writing compelling dialogue requires constant attention to the hidden layers of meaning in each line. Some characters will say few words, but their reticence can convey a critical aspect of their character. Other characters may run at the mouth in paragraphs of dialogue, and their talkative nature will reveal much of their underlying persona.
You need to work hard to give each of your characters a unique voice. Not everyone speaks the same way, uses the same vocabulary, or shares the same reasons for speaking. How do you give your character a unique voice? Screenwriting websites recommend the following. A screenwriting exercise for you, the writer, is to omit character name dialogue headings when writing. Then read your script and see if you can tell who is speaking in each scene. If you can tell who is talking based on what they say and how they say it, then you’ve done a good job of creating distinct voices for your characters.
Give Your Character Purpose
Always give your characters a point of view, a plan, a goal. Characters who know their “why” in life will always be able to demonstrate their “how” in the scenes of your screenplay. Sharing with the audience the character’s plans clarifies what they want, which reflects who they are as well. Keep motivations consistent and on track, and your characters will drive the story forward through each scene.
This is a combination of an original blog post and a Screencraft post: https://screencraft.org/2017/05/17/three-ways-make-characters-three-dimensional/