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Top Ten Tips for Creating Winning Characters

Susan Kouguell gives her top 10 tips for creating winning characters in your screenplays that will get executives to champion your project.

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A successful script must contain compelling characters. If your characters are not fully developed, your script will most likely be rejected. Your goal is to wow film industry executives! A winning screenplay—one that will set yours apart from the tough competition, is the one in which your attention-grabbing characters sparkle and light up each page.

Here is an excerpt from my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!:


Story generates plot; it informs what the narrative is about. The plot informs how the story unfolds. And it is your riveting characters who must inform and drive your plot forward.


Who will live? Who will die? How will they survive?

Who will win? Who will lose? How will they win? How will they lose?

Who will succeed? Who will fail? How will they succeed? How will they fail?

Who will find love? How will they find love?

These aforementioned generic movie taglines, emphasize the significant word “who”— your characters.

To create a believable and compelling plot, your characters must be fleshed out and their distinct characterizations (motivations, behavior, attitudes, and so on), must be gripping and plausible in order to drive the plot forward. When you try to get characters to do what the plot determines, then your characters’ actions, behaviors, and motivations will not be realistic, and they will read as false and contrived.

'Forrest Gump'

'Forrest Gump'

Top Ten Tips for Creating Characters

1. EMPATHY: Film industry folks demand characters with whom they can empathize. If they don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your script and in turn, you have increased your chances of screenplay rejection.

2. GOALS: Convey what your characters’ want and how far they will go to achieve their goals.

3. CONFLICT: Regardless of the genre you are working in and whether your characters are having an inner discord or disputes with others, their conflicts must make sense and must be interesting, in order to raise the stakes in your plot.

4. REASON TO EXIST: Each character must serve a purpose in your script and advance the narrative in some way otherwise you must say “good-bye” and cut this character.

5. UNIQUE: Characters must be unique with distinctive and/or surprising personalities. If they are interchangeable with other characters, then it’s time to rewrite your script.

6. MAKE THEM HUMAN: Unless your characters are nonhuman of course – humanize your characters by giving them identifiable appearances and idiosyncrasies.

7. MOTIVATIONS: Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.

8. BEHAVIOR: Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, your need to convey their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors and traits.

9. ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others or don’t fit in.

10. FLAWS: Characters’ flaws, such as insecurities, make them more identifiable and interesting

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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