When writing a screenplay, there are lots of questions you can ask about your characters to get to know them better.
Here are three questions I find useful:
1: What’s the one moment in their lives they would change if they could? If you ask this of real people you get some surprising answers. Yes, sometimes they’re the big events (“I never would have married my first wife”) but often they’re moments that seem unimportant to an outsider. One of mine is when I was 12 and I cheated a friend out of a few dollars. Many years later I still have a sense of shame about it, even though it’s not the biggest mistake I’ve made.
2: How is that moment reflected in their current life? This is interesting to know whether or not it has any effect on your plot, but it’s quite possible it will. In my case, I think that one little incident has made me try to be as loyal and good a friend as I can—not that I always succeed, of course. Sometimes maybe that’s taken me too far in that direction. In a story I’m working on, the father of the protagonist once declared bankruptcy and the fear of that happening again leads him to making some highly questionable moral choices in order to make sure his current business keeps going.
3: In your understanding of the character, what’s one moment they should change if they could? In other words, objectively looking at this person’s life, what moment would have taken their life in a better direction? This may well be a moment the person doesn’t even recognize as being influential—we’re much better at spotting these things in the life of other people than in our own (unless we’ve been through therapy…).
If there’s a character you’d like to get to know better, try these questions. They could also be interesting to ask your friends—or yourself, if you dare.
Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com