Wendy Kram shares six sets of questions for writers to explore to help create more dimensional characters.
A tip for writing dimensional characters is to take the time to truly get to know them, immerse yourself, get under their skin, see the world through their point of view as much as you can and then write out who they are in a stream of consciousness manner. Before writing your first draft or delving into revisions after you've had a friend or industry colleague provide feedback, particularly if any have made comments such as "Your characters need deepening" or "They need to be more layered," or "They're a little one-dimensional," and so on.
When consulting with screenwriters, I often provide a list of questions that can be helpful to ask and suggest they journal the responses in a free-flowing, free association way, something along the following lines:
1) Where is your character emotionally at the beginning of your story? Is your character on top of the world or trying to recover from some crisis, such as a break up, loss of a job, and so on?
2) What are their short-term and long-term objectives? Are they concerned with meeting next month's rent? Getting a promotion? Finding a cure? Win a parent's approval? File for divorce? Meet their future husband or wife? Seek revenge? Win a competition? etc.
3) What are their obstacles? Are they EXTERNAL conflicts, e.g. physical elements, such as a natural or man-made disaster, a powerful adversary, a monster, a horrible boss, increment weather, or a ticking clock.
4) What are the INTERNAL obstacles? Are they emotional such as lack of confidence, fear of abandonment, acute shyness, etc.? List them.
Most of the time, your characters will have BOTH EXTERNAL AS WELL AS INTERNAL CONFLICTS. For example, in The King's Speech, the protagonist had a speech impediment (physical) as well as a lack of confidence (internal).
5) What are your characters' limiting beliefs about themselves and about others? "I have no money." "I'm a loser." "No girl would ever go out with a nerd like me." "I'm too old," and so on.
6) Where will your character wind up at the end of the movie? Alone? In love? Getting the promotion? Walking away from a job or relationship they thought they wanted at the beginning but now realize they don't? What do they learn? Do they grow? And if so, how?
Constantin Stanislavki's iconic book, AN ACTOR PREPARES, provides some excellent tips and exercises that can benefit screenwriters as well as actors when it comes to building characters.
Even if it’s a tentpole action film where the action may take precedence over deep, complex character development, adding some of these elements will help get your audience more invested in the story and your hero or heroine’s journey. Even with super heroes, the great Stan Lee elevated the genre of comic book characters by infusing them with humanity, insecurities and flaws so that they weren’t just cardboard action figures. He took the time to delve deeper into their inner lives, and that’s true of most films that strike a chord with audiences, whether it’s an action film, thriller, comedy or character-driven drama.
Taking the time to get to know your characters really well can save you time in the long run, provide a directive and compass from which plot, actions, turning points and overall structure will emanate. Without taking the time, it may be a bit like trying to row toward shore without a paddle or like preparing to bake a cake without your key ingredients.
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