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Screenplay Writing Developing Your Character's Back Stories

  • By Josh Strate
  • Published 09/17/2010
  • Screenplay

How many movies are on your favorites list? I have about ten movies that I love and watch quite often. A few of those titles: Unforgiven, Heat, Ronin, Snatch, and any one of the Lord of the Ring’s movies. What transforms a typical blockbuster into a personal favorite? If you take a close look at the movies you love, you’ll find that the characters in the movies I just mentioned are fully developed and have extensive backgrounds. In fact, the more developed a character’s back story, the more involved the audience will become, and screenplays with highly developed characters typically transform into highly successful films. If you question whether or not a character’s back story directly relates to a movie’s success, you should rent last years blockbusters and watch them all. Of course, there will always be shallow movies that captivate a young audience through mindless, action-based entertainment. But those types of movies are the rare exception rather than the rule. You’ll find that the highest grossing movies, particularly the ones that have withstood the test of time, will always contain highly developed characters.

Are your characters shallow? Or are they full of depth? As a comparison, think about your life. Think about your childhood, your high school years, your college years, and those first few years that immediately followed your college graduation. If you wrote an autobiography that included intimate details about your friendships, relationships, and adventures throughout your life thus far, how many pages would be needed to get everything down on paper? Probably thousands of pages, maybe even tens of thousands. But is it necessary to include that muc

h information about a character in order to capture your audience’s attention? No, it isn’t. In fact, it would be a terrible mistake to try to include that much information about a character’s background. An extensive background is not necessarily what a character needs in order for the audience to care about the outcome of a story. While it’s easy to cram a ton of information about a character into a story, it’s definitely not good story-making policy. A character’s back story must closely relate to the storyline if you want your audience to get emotionally involved in the plot. If you inject facts and information about your character into the story that are not relevant to the storyline or its development, then you are simply wasting screen time and you run an elevated risk of boring your audience. Let’s take an example of a protagonist who has entered a cake-baking contest in her hometown. Would it be pertinent to elaborate on how she was a stock broker in New York for twenty years prior to moving back to her small hometown? No, it wouldn’t. That information wouldn’t correlate with the cake-baking contest and would be useless information as well as a waste of precious screen time. If, however, she was the daughter of a world famous wedding cake designer, then that information would certainly be pertinent to the storyline and would add an incredible amount of relevant depth to her back story.

The bottom line is this: fully developed character back stories that relate to the plot will have a better chance of capturing an audience’s attention. If your characters are shallow or if your storyline is filled with irrelevant character information, there’s a strong chance that your screenplay will fail to capture the attention of a production company. Good luck with your screenplay writing!



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