GLARING SCREENPLAY PROBLEM #2: Underdeveloped Characters
Lesson 2: Underdeveloped Characters
The more you write, the more active you are in learning to become a better writer, the more you’ll see these glaring problems diminish. You will learn to spot them faster, and avoid them the first time. Practice is king.
According to information compiled from the Black List, the second biggest problem in screenplays is underdeveloped characters. A healthy 41% of us don’t write compelling characters. Big surprise. Have you ever wondered why, out of the hundreds of thousands of scripts written and put out in the world each year or even decade… only a handful get made? Optioned? Give that some thought.
Website 538 compiled the Black List data and had this to say — “for underdeveloped characters, the biggest offenders are scripts for alien invasion films (66 percent), comic book and superhero movies (58 percent), and romantic fantasy (57 percent).”
So, lets talk about how to write developed characters.
POV – FLAWS – SUBTEXT
Always give your characters a POV and flaws. Each character is only as interesting as their point of view and flaws.
A POV is how the character sees the world. Their opinions about life. A POV gives character insight, perspective and uniquely qualifies them to be the cause of problems and conflict in the story.
A POV must absolutely be related to the central problem or flaw of the character. Most scripts I read lack character POV, and I’m guilty of it as well. The difference is, I’m aware when I’m writing boring characters, and my trusted writing friends don’t let me get away with it.
Without a POV, characters are dull, one-dimensional and flat. They tend to be cliche — sound like everybody else, think like everybody else, act like everybody else and that equals boring.
Think about the most interesting characters you’ve seen in films/television and I promise you they have an interesting POV. And flaws.
Breaking Bad. Walter White. Lots of flaws. His POV changed over the course of the series.
Think of the characters in these fabulous films… Godfather. Fight Club. Pulp Fiction. Parasite.
Characters from these films have unique and interesting perspectives, and flaws.
Flaws are not only reserved for your antagonist. All your characters should have flaws, especially your protagonist. Try this. While designing your protagonist, give her 4-5 character traits and make 1/3 of those traits clear and present flaws. Those flaws should definitely impact the characters ability to reach her goal, and to change her POV during the journey.
Again, consider the characters from the films I mentioned above. They all have flaws that cause problems during their journey.
Walter White’s POV — he thinks he’s a victim and acts like one. But when he learns he has cancer and he’s going to die (inciting incident – it’s the whole reason for the journey), he goes along with the prognosis. But he has a few good qualities – like he wants to be a good husband and father – which means he really wants to make sure his family is taken care of when he dies. But how? He doesn’t make money. He’s a low-income chemistry teacher (character trait – he knows chemistry). Backstory: He got cheated out of a bright future with his previous company (flaw — he doesn’t have a backbone — he’s a victim) and he struggles to make ends meet. When he sees an opportunity that aligns with his skill set, he takes advantage of it. He makes one flawed (or tragic) choice after another all because he needs to take care of his family. What’s the difference – he’s going to die anyway.
POV – victim mentality — His POV arcs from victim mentality to king of his domain.
Character traits: meek, smart, empathetic, desperate, powerless — his traits arc as well.
And ultimately his life arcs.
Because we learn about characters three ways — what they say, what they do and what others say about them, it only makes sense that we address dialogue.
A character’s POV is expressed through their action and through their dialogue.
But if a character speaks only on-the-nose, we get bored. If a character speaks banal and repetitive dialogue, we get bored.
Subtext is the art of revealing character, story and perspective by saying nothing about those things at all, and sometimes by saying nothing at all.
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This saying has become a part of our vernacular, and we all know it doesn’t mean somebody’s getting a good deal.
Or the meaning of a simple coin toss…. No Country for Old Men.
Or, perhaps a few lines between two civil men…
Col. Hans Landa: “If a rat were to walk in here right now as I’m talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?”
Perrier LaPadite: “Probably not.”
CH: “I didn’t think so. You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.
You know they’re not talking about rats.
Okay — enough for now. Apply these principles to your scripts and watch the vast improvement.