The concept of screenwriting character development is to systematically create persons who are as complex and difficult as physical humans. While basic character development covers surface-level details, which leads to relatable characters and may cover most bases regarding story flow and plot, it’s at the point of basic development completion most screenwriters stop the progress of their characters. This is the biggest mistake any writer can make.
Developing intensely real and complex characters requires a deeper understanding of each person, which is only accomplished by continually asking yourself a simple question, “Why?” Three letters that dynamically enhance understanding of who this character was/is/to be.
The Levels of Why
Although this screenwriting technique seems simple enough, the doors it opens are far from novice. I’ve found this screenwriting method typically creates three primary levels: Extrovert Qualities, Introvert Qualities and Subconscious Elements. While these seem to showcase the most, it’s possible your thought trails delve into a different world. If this is the case, make sure the primary goal of each level is to uncover aspects of your character that’s beyond what initial character breakdowns uncovered.
Immediately upon asking “why,” regarding character history, personality or scenarios, the first thoughts typically regard extroverted qualities within said character. These qualities are the most public character elements showcased in dialogue/action sequences. The information uncovered within this level is never too far away from initial outline character creations. Yet, this level reveals slightly more intimate information to help bulk character personalities and public displays of emotions.
Even characters with boisterous personalities have introverted personality elements. These are the moments in which he is quiet or withdrawn from personal engagement. When your character doesn’t respond to dialogue or physical actions in a manner that’s typical, there is a reason for this. While the initial breakdown has him not responding in a normal, extroverted manner because he’s simply embarrassed, the second level of “why” delves deeper than surface level causes. Perhaps he’s embarrassed because what was said stroke a chord belonging to a hidden secret/insecurity.
During this level, delve into the hidden meaning behind his reactions. We all have hidden/introverted personality elements. The exciting part of being a screenwriter is the ability to create these historical elements.
If you’ve read any of my other screenwriting technique articles, you’ve likely noticed a trend in work pertaining to character development; the role of subconscious behaviors. As humans, our subconscious plays a substantial role in how we react to social and personal interactions.
Even though this element plays quantitative role in how we become who we are, many screenwriters place little (if any) focus on character subconscious.
Delve into this deepest level by seeking out past experiences, interactions and self-awareness for said character. For example, why did the character get embarrassed? The first level found it’s because he was put in the spotlight in front of his coworkers. The second level revealed his embarrassment was triggered because of a hidden secret. Finally, the subconscious level uncovered the strength this internal/hidden secret has is because he’s afraid that being wrong would place him on the same level as his father; who he hates.
Of course, the above is very simple in terms of details. However, it’s an ideal example of how asking this simple question can lead to intense character elements and history. Continually utilize this technique for every character and your screenplay will be rich in realism.