Character Development, Technique

Screenwriting Exercises: Character Creation Step By Step

Screenwriting exercises consist of a few easy steps you can follow with little time investment to get closer to your goal: completing your screenplay. This article is a step-by-step guide to character creation so you can develop a compelling hero for your movie. As a bonus, we’ll also talk about creating villains and give you a character sheet template at the end.
Words by Jakob Straub.

Create Your Awesome Main Character

Your main character is essential to your story and a great element with which to start work on your screenplay. They should be awesome in the sense that they compel interest and draw the audience in to root for them. To be an intriguing character, your hero should exist between everyman and ubermensch. If they’re too generic, no one will care, but a superhero with infinite powers is likewise boring because they’re equally predictable. The following steps are designed to give your hero the right qualities for true awesomeness.

How To Use These Step-By-Step Character Creation Exercises

In just five steps, you can create the hero for your screenplay. It’s simple: in each step, you’ll answer a couple of guiding questions after a preceding explanation to unlock a different aspect of your protagonist. Based on your answers, you’ll fill out a detailed character sheet at the end. If you’re in a rush, you can also skip straight ahead to that last step.

Step 1: Equip And Calibrate Your Hero

Make your hero unusual to raise them above average, but not so extraordinary to give them omnipotence. Examples of interesting qualities are: great skills or abilities, conflict or contrast, imperfections, relationships or connections, a powerful or defining past, decisiveness and proactivity, and a manner that is sympathetic, clever, or witty. 

Give your hero varying degrees of proactivity, likeability, and competence and you’ll automatically introduce a level of complexity to your character. The more proactive your main character is, the less you depend on external events and circumstances to drive the story forward. You can force an otherwise lethargic character into action by giving them dreams, secrets, longing, instability, a discovery, disaster, a sleight of hand or twist of fate that compels them to react.

Calibrate how likable your hero is either through actions the audience can relate to, or by giving them a skill – everyone is good at something, even if it doesn’t connect to the plot. Competence is something you can play with when your hero leaves their familiar surroundings and has to adapt and learn to apply their skills in new ways.

To make your hero human and put them on their path at the same time, think of their flaws and how they might stand in the way of what the character wants. And what DO they want? Give them a goal, but also a lesson or theme they might have to learn about which they don’t have a clue yet!

WALL-E is a robot, but despite the fact that he hardly speaks, his awkwardness, love of show tunes and his care for the planet and his animal companion instantly endear him to the audience. He’s proactive, inventive and seemingly more human than the humans in the movie with his ready display of emotions. He wants to be with EVA, and has to find out that the way to do so is to lead mankind back to earth.

Guiding Questions

  • On a scale of 1-10, how does your hero rate for proactivity, likeability, competence?
  • What is the one thing your hero is good at?
  • What is your hero’s flaw?
  • Does your hero have a problem or a goal?
  • What motivates your hero?
  • What do they do about it, and what difficulties do they face?
  • What is at stake for the hero?
  • Which three major forces are driving your hero?
  • What is a life lesson or theme your hero might have to learn?

Achievement unlocked: You’ve given birth to your hero as a fairly complex and human character with a range of traits that will send them on their journey!

Step 2: Surround Your Hero

No man is an island. Even if your hero is stranded in a remote location and cut off from other characters, their relationships will matter. Surround your hero with a cast of other people and map out their connections. In a script, secondary characters serve the purpose of moving the hero along their arc, but it’s a screenwriting trap to reduce them to just these roles.

Avoid flat characters and put yourself in the shoes of the people around your protagonist. Like your hero, they have hopes, dreams, fears, and goals – what is their story, and how does it relate to the hero’s quest? Is there a conflict? Great, show it! Use this discovery method to find out their motivation and check if you’ve chosen the right hero. If a secondary character’s story appears more apt for telling, repeat step one for them!

The Usual Suspects is the story of five criminals and their involvement in a payback job for the mysterious Keyser Söze – as told by the character of Verbal. To convince both the police and the audience, Verbal weaves an intricate tale that shows how each of them has wrong Keyser Söze at some point, revealing their motivation and making the supporting characters well-rounded.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the story of your hero’s mentor?
  • What is the story of your hero’s love interest?
  • What is the story of your hero’s best friend?
  • What is the story of your hero mother, father, sibling, family member?
  • What is the story of your hero’s helper or accomplice?
  • What is the story of your hero’s (animal) companion?
  • What is the story of your hero’s boss or subordinate?
  • What is the story of your hero’s enemy?

Achievement unlocked: You’ve populated your script with well-rounded secondary characters and tested how worthy the story of your hero is!

Step 3: Chronicle Your Hero

This step will add to your hero’s background in the form of a biography or dossier. If you prefer, you can also have your hero speak a monolog or write a letter that reveals their secrets and details. You’ll only require a part of these chronicles for completing your script, and only a fraction will appear on screen – but it’s useful to have these facts about your character ready when you need them.

Don’t let the information density of your hero’s biography tempt you to dump it all on the audience in a single scene. As your story progresses, you will reveal bits and pieces here and there when they are relevant.

In Kill Bill, the past of The Bride and betrayed former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad member (Uma Thurman) is the premise and complication of the whole story.

Guiding Questions

  • Where was the hero born or where did they grow up?
  • Which important events shaped the hero’s past or development?
  • Who is part of the hero’s family, and how close are they?
  • What are the details of the hero’s education, occupation, finances, health?
  • Are there any past failures, dark secrets, or traumas?
  • What are they doing with their life?
  • Whom does the hero admire?
  • Who is most important to the hero?
  • Do they have a personal habit or object?
  • How do the above answers affect the story or other characters in it?

Achievement unlocked: You should now have a detailed picture of your hero’s background and past!

Step 4: Present Your Hero

First impressions count. The audience will start judging your hero from their first appearance. You’ll need to establish them as likable and believable in order to draw viewers in and get them on the same side as your main character. When you introduce your hero for the first time, make sure the scene represents who they are and establishes their style, their voice, and their personality.

Aim for a strong and above all visual opening image to show your hero in action. It helps to include their flaws in this first presentation to make viewers aware that your hero is a complex human being – and in that sense like any of us.

Pixar are masters at letting images speak for themselves. The opening sequence to Up explains both Carl Fredricksen’s childhood dream as well as his current grumpiness, in spite of which the audience still likes him, because we already know his emotional backstory – all with hardly a word from him.

Guiding Questions

  • When and where does the hero make their first appearance?
  • What is their first action?
  • What is their first line?
  • When, where and how does the hero first interact with a secondary character?
  • If there is a direct antagonist, how will you first contrast them and the hero?
  • How can you introduce your hero visually (show, don’t tell)?
  • How can you display your hero’s flaws?
  • Does your hero come across as likable in their first appearance?
  • Can you establish your hero’s goal?

Achievement unlocked: You’ve set up your hero for a strong and impressive first appearance and also laid the foundation for important scenes in your first act.

Step 5: Progress Your Hero

Now that you’ve established your main and secondary characters, they all need to stay in character. Easier said than done because there is another screenwriting trap waiting for you: while your story or plot shouldn’t be predictable, your characters need to be to a certain extent. As the audience gets to know your hero, they come to expect a certain behavior from them that is line with what they’ve seen so far. If your hero becomes an unpredictable wild card, viewers will stop caring or become frustrated.

Give your hero and other characters rules that guide their behavior. You don’t need to show them, but these rules should inform your screenwriting and infuse every scene. Every action or spoken line of your hero should reveal an aspect of their character, their past, relationships, obligations, motivation, and sensibilities. Keep these in mind as you progress your hero through the story to make them stay true to themselves.

In Back To The Future, it’s a signature trait that Marty McFly can’t stand being called a chicken. His overreaction in an effort to show he’s not a coward is predictable but doesn’t stand in the way of his character evolving in other ways.

Guiding Questions

  • What rule guides your hero’s behavior?
  • What rule guides the behavior of your secondary characters?
  • Which parts of the hero’s past affect their current actions?
  • Which of the hero’s relationships are most important with frequent interaction?
  • What obligations does your hero have (social, religious, personal etc.)?
  • What motivates the hero at all times?
  • Which of your hero’s sensibilities evoke or provoke strong reactions, likes, and dislikes?

Achievement unlocked: You’ve established how your hero will behave in any situation and you ensure that their progress through the story reveals aspects of their character.

Bonus Step: Oppose Your Hero

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As great as this line from The Dark Knight is, the screenwriting trap to avoid is an antagonist who exists solely to get in the way of your hero. The more evilness or badness you put into a villain, the more likely you are to rationalize them and their actions exclusively that way: “That’s just who they are, they’re evil.” But even Darth Vader started out as Anakin Skywalker.

The least you can do to humanize your villain is to rate their proactivity, likeability, and competence, the same as you did for your hero. Better yet, perform at least the entire first step for your antagonist as well to gather enough background information about them. Give them their own full-fledged goals so the audience can understand what drives them, even though they don’t agree with the bad guy’s worldview.

Norman Bates in Psycho is a villain, a monster, a psycho, but he’s also human – an average person you wouldn’t suspect in the first place. Though times have changed, the audience in 1960 wasn’t used to this kind of movie bad guy.

In the classic clash of a hero and a nemesis, the bad guy can start out more powerful, but their might hides the fact that unlike the hero, they’re not special. The hero’s journey is to find out what makes them unique and to overcome their handicap (or even curse). This setup also works without a direct villain; the antagonist or opposing force can be life circumstances, the hero’s flaws, society, and its rules, nature or natural forces, or a race against time.

Guiding Questions

  • Who or what is opposing your hero?
  • Is your villain less likable than your hero?
  • Does your hero have a redeeming quality?
  • Do you have a good reason why your villain is the bad guy? Can you point to an event in your villain’s past where things went awry?
  • If viewers sympathize with your villain, can they sympathize more with your hero?
  • What is the story of your villain – do they believe they are the hero?
  • What is the relationship between the hero and villain?
  • Who or what does the villain love or care about?
  • What skills and powers does the villain have?
  • What weaknesses and blind spots does the villain have?

Achievement unlocked: You’ve created a villain who is more human and complex than a cliché bad guy and you’ve laid the groundwork for the confrontation between hero and villain.

Get to know and understand your own characters so you can describe, introduce and manipulate them. Let your knowledge inform your scenes for realistic motivations and actions. Feel free to expand upon our basic character template. Enter your email address below to stay up to date with our blog and download the sheet:

Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories.