Realism is striven for by many writers; however, very few actually hit the nail on its head in terms of believability. Throughout my experience, I’ve noticed many writers come close to accomplishing the goal of realism, but miss the mark due to how their characters engage and interact with their world. Character development spans far deeper than finding out primary personality elements. Effective character development achieves the goal of realism within the world a character lives in.
Establishing believability within a character begins with how they engage with external influences. Even if the world is set in the distant future, realism can be achieved.
When I speak of “their world,” I’m not referring to the planet as a whole. Rather, I’m discussing the immediate world a character lives and interacts in. This world may be very small if the character lives in a small town and only deals with a handful of individuals or their world may be huge if they travel or live in a metropolitan area. Regardless, screenwriters must establish how each character interacts with their world and how their world/environment shapes their personality.
As we engage with the world around us, we are influenced by its presence. The same is very true for characters in your screenplay. The influence of an environment and how this influence translates on screen plays a substantial role in the believability of a character in its world.
The biggest mistake a screenwriter can make in regards to this form of character development is having a character interact with very specific persons/situations without it having a noticeable effect on their personality or current mindset. No matter how strong the resolve of a character is, if he doesn’t interact and showcase the influence of his environment then the story will fall short.
Focus on how the world around a character shapes his personality and choices. How do external influences effect his choices? Is his mood altered because of happenings in his world? How does the character adapt to changes and navigate his way throughout the maze of life? Answering these questions provide solutions to many story problems as well as adding a level of realism to each character.