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Homeschooling for Screenwriters: 30 Days of Developing Your Characters

With the country on lockdown, kids are being homeschooled, people are working from home, and writers are hoping to get words on the page. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman starts 30 days of homeschooling for screenwriters with tips for developing your characters.

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Screenwriting Homeschooling 101 developing characters

Welcome to Screenwriting Homeschooling 101! We're here to hunker down together and bring writing lessons right to your laptop. 

I love learning. One of the best tips I discovered was in Robert McKee’s three-day Story seminar, involving creating characters. McKee repeatedly emphasized that a person’s character is defined by how they behave under pressure.

I’d say with the COVID-19 lockdown, we’re all under quite a bit of pressure. Families are learning an awful lot about each other, and no doubt, divorce lawyers will be in high demand by the time this is over. But many people are handling this pressure with extraordinary grace.

What makes one person handle pressure differently from another? That’s a question we should all be asking when we create our fictional characters. The answer is found in their backstory.

I’ve written often about therapy for our characters. I love analyzing people and finding ways to expose their flaws. So, let’s use this lockdown time to explore our characters, how they would behave under pressure, and also put yourself on the therapy couch, asking the same questions of the fictional characters floating around your home, keeping you company.

For the next 30 days of quarantine, I’m going to take you through a series of tips and questions to help you elevate the characters in your story, hopefully, making them more compelling as well as raise the stakes of your overall plot.

Let’s dive in.

The first step in developing any story is creating a compelling premise. That’s no easy task. Hollywood executives won’t greenlight a screenplay unless they feel the film will put a large number of viewers in the theater seats to recoup the millions of dollars of production costs. If you’re writing a TV pilot, character creation is even more important, as viewers tune in every week to see what will happen to the characters they love. So, when you explore the premise for your next story, think about how the characters will play that story out.

[Read this article by my writing partner, sharing fantastic tips on creating high-concept story ideas]

Beyond premise, consider the theme, and how your characters’ actions can emphasize the message of your movie or TV show. It’s critical to understand your premise and theme while creating your characters, even your supporting characters. Theme plays out in the subplots, too.

DAY ONE: Character Goals

For our first exercise, answer the following two questions:

What’s your main character’s outer goal? For a story to be clear, the reader needs to know what they’re rooting for. Is it to get the girl? To escape prison? To stop a catastrophe from happening? What goal are we hoping they achieve by the end of the film? Without a goal, there's no story.

What does each of your characters want to achieve, including the antagonist? Your main character isn't the only one with an agenda. Every character has a want or need, sometimes being opposite of your main character's. Remember, what they want in each specific scene will change, but decide what each character's big-picture want is at the beginning of your story. We’ll let them evolve into greater or different desires later.

Why does their outer goal matter? Knowing what all of your characters want to accomplish will help you come up with plot points to add conflict—obstacles to throw in the character's way to keep them off track. Without conflict, a story bores us to tears.

We’ll explore the next step in character creation from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.

But do your homework first! Start making a list of your characters' goals. 

Full List of 30 Days of Lessons

Check out the list of new lessons for the 30 Days of Developing Your Characters below. Bookmark this page so you can keep track of all the tips and exercises. 

DAY 2, 3 and 4: Creating Character Backstories - Diving deep into creating characters' backstories not only helps you create roles actors want to play, but also creates more opportunities for interesting plot points and conflict.

DAY 5: Read Screenplays - How to Find Professional Screenplays to Download - Great movies have great characters. The best way to learn how to write a screenplay is to read screenplays written by professionals. Get an extensive list of resources to find screenplays online to help you develop compelling characters.

DAY 6 and 7: How to Identify Your Character's Inner Wounds - A character's inner wound not only grounds the story, but also provides valuable information for creating plot points full of conflicts to push your character. Explore ways to identify your character's inner wounds.

DAY 8: What is Your Character Afraid Of? - Exploring the fears of your characters is an essential step in character development. Why are they so afraid to face those fears? 

DAY 9, 10 and 11: Meet the Bad Guy - Antagonists toss road blocks in front of our protagonists. They're the most important source of story conflict. Learn writing exercises to help elevate your antagonists and add more conflict to your stories.

DAY 12: Naming Your Characters - Unlike parents, who name their children before ever meeting them, writers can name a character after they've explored their psyches. Get tips on naming your characters.

DAY 13 and 14: Avoid Cliché Characters and Actions - Hollywood wants "the same, but different" not only in the story ideas you pitch, but also in the characters you create. Learn tips to avoid cliché characters and actions.

DAY 15, 16, 17 and 18Comfort, Revenge, Fear and Power - Developing our characters to their fullest requires deep exploration of character motivations. Get tips on pushing characters out of their comfort zones, discovering their potential for revenge, fear and power.

DAY 19, 20, 21 and 22: Supporting Characters - Supporting characters "support" the protagonist, the theme and the overall story. Learn how to create supporting characters who serve your story.

DAY 23, 24 and 25Theme, Setup and Payoff - Great storytelling involves characters that captivate the reader. Get tips for connecting your characters to the story's theme and using their choices to establish an effective setup and payoff.

DAY 26, 27 and 28: How Character Evolution Impacts Story Structure - Stories are only as interesting as the characters in them. Get advice on using character evolution to create powerful story structure whether you're an outliner or a pantser.

DAY 29: Writing Character Introductions and Dialogue - Get more tips for character development with examples of movie openings and character introductions to inspire, and tips for writing authentic dialogue.

DAY 30: Your Character's Biggest Obstacle Isn't What You Think - The most important element of character evolution is revealed in the final lesson of the "30 Days of Character Development" series. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it. 

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

Get more tips for creating characters by downloading our free PDF with tips to Strengthen Your Plot through Character Creation


Plot Development_ Strengthen Your Plot through Character Creation