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10 Tips for Successful Character Biographies

Susan Kouguell explains why taking the extra step of writing character biographies is helpful to your story and offers tips on how to make the most of the exercise.

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Who are these people? What do they want? What do they need?

Why do they exist in this story? Why should I care? What time’s lunch?

These are just some of the questions film executives are pondering as they read your script. The latter question – about lunch – is equally important. Why? Because if they’re thinking about something other than your script then it’s time to think more about your characters.

Readers demand a strong understanding of who your characters are. They want your characters to ring true. They want to know why your characters are taking the actions they do in your screenplay. They want to find that winning script. But if you don’t fully develop your characters you increase your chances exponentially of having your script rejected.

Successful characters are multi-dimensional with distinctive physical attributes, emotional traits, appearances, personalities, intelligence, vulnerabilities, emotions, attitudes, idiosyncrasies, and hopes and dreams. Writing successful characters also means digging deep into their past and present.

There are several ways in which to delve into characters, such as writing character biographies in the first person – your character’s voice. (I offer various templates and examples in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!). Use whichever exercise works best for you and your writing style. Whether you’re writing your first draft or nearing your final polish, continue to dig deep into your characters’ minds and souls.

For me, I find that taking the time to write character bios at each major draft of my screenplay, strengthens both my characters and my plot. I always advise my students and Su-City clients to write character bios -- and while they try to hide their rolling eyes or deep sighs (I know what they’re thinking…I just want to write my screenplay) -- I have to say, once they write the bios there’s always that big AHA moment, and they agree that it was worth it. Their characters are stronger. They’ve gained more insights into their plots. And the result? A better screenplay.

10 Tips for Your Character Biographies

These tips can be used for each of your main characters and for your significant minor characters:

  1. Empathy: What elements make my characters likeable and unlikable?
  2. Character Arcs: How do my characters evolve in the beginning, middle, and end of the script, as they attempt to achieve their goals? What do my characters learn about themselves and others, and what do my characters gain or lose, as the plot unfolds?
  3. Goals: What are my characters’ main goals, and hopes and dreams, and why are these important to my characters? How do my characters plan to achieve these goals?
  4. Obstacles: What are my characters’ roadblocks, problems, and hurdles that they must overcome to achieve their goals?
  5. Multi-dimensional: What are my characters specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors, idiosyncrasies and traits? How do my characters see themselves and how do they relate to others?
  6. Motivations: What are the underlying reasons that motivate my characters to make critical and specific decisions?
  7. Flaws: What are my characters’ shortcomings and weaknesses?
  8. Vulnerabilities: What are my characters’ Achilles’ heel?
  9. Attitude: How do my characters really feel about themselves and others?
  10. Characters’ pasts influence their present: What are the events in my characters’ pasts, such as schooling, home life, employment, and/or trauma that have significantly molded them to be the person they are today?

Now, imagine yourself seated with a film executive across a table at a fine restaurant. You are both discussing what to order for lunch. And what are you thinking? The executive loves my script and is paying for this expensive meal. I can order anything I want!

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College, SUNY and presents international workshops and seminars on screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS!and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.,

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