Screenwriting : Character Creation by Robert D. Heller

Character Creation

How do you write a good character bio? I've written two or three bios for the same character, both in different formats. I'm not satisfied with either style? Am I over-thinking this?

Mark Mancini

That's good that you have a good background for your character. What do you mean by different formats?

Robert D. Heller

I've written a full biography, a list with name, DOB, beliefs, etc.

Ross Somerville

I would ask what the bio was for? It it's for your own benefit, then bash on. The more you get to know your character, the more little points that you can incorporate into your character, if their relationship with their grandmother affected their relationship with their sister, if they are remorseful about something they did in their past; all of this makes your character more real to you and that will (hopefully) translate into a more robust and rounded character. If it's for, say, a series bible, then give a detailed description but don't go off into what they prefer to have for breakfast (unless it's pertinent). If it's for a pitch, well you need to sum them up in a few sentences; get the essence of the character.

Ace Cheverez

Most importantly make it short and sweet. Everyone's busy or will bore fast. The director will get a sense of who the character is by your "dialog" and take it from there. And a good actor will do the same. If it's for a pitch, money people are interested in short and "very sweet" they have short attention spans due to various reasons.

Robert D. Heller

Ross Every book and article that I read says to make up a bio. I thought that I'd give it a try.

Boomer Murrhee

I have extensive bios on all my main characters, but most of what I come up with doesn't get into the script. It merely helps write dialogue from their POV. The better I know the character, the easier it is to write. I think this is true with all research. My experience.

Kathaleen M. Brewer

I've always thought of a character bio as being that stack of index cards listing everything possible that comes to mind about the guy. You do have to know the person inside and out to know how they will react to persons, places or things. But other than that, they aren't read by anybody else but yourself.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Last year I worked with a guy who did very complex character relationship maps with bios for all of the characters. They were very well put together. Unfortunately, his script writing was terrible. Beyond that, the only time I wrote anything remotely close to that is when I put together a Television show bio with short paragraph character descriptions. I used the Sons of Anarchy pilot as my template. However, for feature scripts, I never write them. My characters are revealed through dialogue and narrative.

Bill Costantini

I think it's pretty essential to have a character bio for your main characters for at least the following reasons. 1. It's really their backstory and enables you to better flesh out your character into a multi-dimensional, complex person. 2. It enables you to create better depths of character and how that character can be contradictory, ironic, hypocritical, and flawed - just like all real people are. We are all "walkng contradictions" in some ways to some degree. "Book smart, but street dumb." "Kind, loving, compassionate sociopath serial killer." "Polite, yet condescending." "Outgoing and extroverted, but really has fears of intimacy." "Calm on the outside, but ready to erupt on the inside." The writer should also know the "why's" of those behaviors in order to realize the greatest depth that those characters can yield. 3. As a result, it's those flaws that can help create the conflicts, and the obstacles, that help to prevent your characters from achieving what they want to achieve - just like real people. 4. Those backstory bio's are also a way to understand the emotional intelligence and the psyche of the character and what they bring to the table of the vessel that is your script. 5. Those backstory bio's, then, serve as the explanation for why your characters are the way they are, and ultimately, why they are trying to redeem something and seek salvation. 6. They also can help you better articulate the inner and outer motivations that form and drive your characters, and therefore, your story. 7. It's what helps make the cause and effect of their actions - and consequently, your story - more credible. Those well-developed character bios are like goldmines - treat them accordingly. It's like the good, the bad, and the ugly of that person, and is what ultimately makes them like real people. Psychologists and psychiatrists write some very excellent evaluations of new patients that make for some excellent character bio samplings. Download a complete psychological assessment for some really great insights, and "Creating Great Characters" by Dr. Linda Seger is probably the best book out there for screenwriters.

Jorge J Prieto

The backstory works for me when creating the antagonist, for I feel a mean, evil person is not just evil, there are strong reasons behind their behavior. Except arrogance, that comes from a place of insecurity or just simply a distorted upbringing. I do have to agree with everyone, what ever helps you as a screenwriter to create real life-like characters, use it is.

Benjamin L. Harris

go get yourself a copy of Jerry maguire script... each character has a short paragraph defining them and that is all, the dialogue and actions take care of the rest... if you have to give them a full bio you are not letting them tell the story

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Benjamin: I tend to agree with your philosophy. However, it's the end result that matters. Do whatever works and God forbid, have an original voice while doing it.

Anthony Cawood

I'm with Phillip on this one, I have an idea of the person in my head and build within the script... works for me... But, you should do what works best for you, not me.

Jorge J Prieto

Amen, CJ.

Bill Costantini

To Jorge, Regarding antagonists...one of the additional great benefits of making a bullet-proof character bio for antagonists (and all characters, of course) is how much sympathy you want that antagonist to have. That's one of the great emotional twister parts of audience's movie-going experience - when the villian also has these redeeming quailities that makes us feel sorry for them/like them/want to be them. For the movie-goer, it's like "oh no...the bank robber that the hero is going after is robbing banks to support his family...and he's such a nice guy....and funny, too....even though he grew up in such a terrible environment." So now you're playing with the audience's emotions on that, too, and making them consciously process things while watching the movie. Killer stuff. That's an added depth of complexity that is difficult to write on the fly and without a higher level of pre-planning. I/most writers would have all that already figured out in the character bio. It's hard enough, when actually writing the script, to formulate elements like that - at least for me. I need to have all of that already figured out before I start writing. When I'm actually writing, it's time to concentrate on making the highest-quality/most credible dialogue that I can make, and making the highest-quality narrative I can make, and choosing the best-appropriate words that I can for each. If I"m trying to do those two things and hit my plot points AND flesh out a character's psyche at the same time, my head would explode.

Jorge J Prieto

Yes! Totally agree with you, Bill I just love when an antagonist redeems him or herself, even though it doesn't happen much in today's films. Back to your point about villains, I remember when I first watched The Dark Night, how in an odd way, I felt kinda sorry for Joker after watching the scene where he describes how his father scared him , it move me. So, you're right. I'm grateful to you for taking the time in providing such excellent examples that are so helpful for me and to other writers here I'm sure. Thanks, brother and best of luck to you.

Eoin O'Sullivan

I like to keep it simple and use Syd Field's simple ingredients as a starting point: goal, attitude, point of view, ability to change.

Robert D. Heller

Eoin O'Sullivan I'm actually about halfway through reading Syd Field

Robert D. Heller

Jorge Pietro The problem there is he tells two different versions of that story in the film, so you have the unreliable narrator happening there.

JD Glasscock

depends on whether your a director as well and are shooting it....if your trying to sell script, you don't need it, simple description as character appears then show character thru dialogue and action who they are.....if your directing it will be good to do maybe for your actors to see your vision.....if your utilizing as a tool to write the character, then doesnt matter as its just for yourself noone else will see it...

Stuart Clarke

I had my writing class develop bios with everything from favorite color to biggest fear. About 30 questions and impossible to know what's important. I think the goal is to know each character separately. This really helps with dialogue

Kathaleen M. Brewer

Going back to Bill's comments about getting inside the head of antagonist - just think how interesting it would be to get hold of a government psychological assessment of an ISIS commander....

John Garrett

I have bio notes on a character. All the things that are important to the story. I don't care what happened to them in first grade, but in second grade they saw the family pet run over by a car. That may be important to my story. If my male character was dressed like a baby girl until he was 6 when his mother had a daughter and was then marginalized in favor of his sister......etc. I have no written FULL bios. I would go one step further and suggest that in ANY TRAINING (except for CPR or the like) take what works for you and leave what doesn't.

Natasha Powell

Sometimes, which I think this will sound creepy, I people watch and wonder what type of person they are. I use the profile I've contrived from strangers with my characters. Then I interview them (not the people I creeped on lol). It helps me understand how they'd react or how they'd speak in dialogue.

Mike Romoth

I think maybe "bio" is the idea that is getting in the way. What are the most important "events" that shaped the character's psyche? I'd say the important thing here is not the factual landscape, but the emotional landscape. One critical event can haunt everything you do for the rest of your life.

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

I have found that writing a back-story for each character, even minor characters, while dreaming up the story, BEFORE sitting down for the big beginning-to-end write, really helps ensure that everyone's dialogue reveals their unique traits. Also, I think it comes out in the dialogue that these characters do have back stories...sure it often only gets hinted at, because they're all wrapped up in the now of the movie's plot, but it helps give each character depth. I honestly don't know it this comes out in my screenplays, I kind of think dialogue might be a weak point with me, but I know it helps me while developing the story. I don't do it religiously though. Sometimes, with my early specs, a character's back story revealed itself during the writing process, and took the plot to a cool new place I hadn't planned.

Robert D. Heller

Mike Romoth I like that idea.

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