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Screenplay Character Development Tips On How To Write Believable Characters

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July 20, 2015 2 comments
character development tips

Screenplay character development tips. They are what everyone wants to know about. “I have this incredible idea for a script, but how do I make my characters feel real?” Here are some great little screenplay character development tips / hacks that most writers don’t use.

I consider it essential, and it helps me crack the motivations of my characters wide open. So, in essence, it is a hack. I use… the Enneagram. Without going into a history lesson, the Enneagram is a personality type grading system, along the lines of Meyers-Briggs, or even — gulp — astrology.

So, let’s dive into my personal strategy on how to write a character that feels “real”.

My #1 Screenplay Character Development Tips

The central conceit of the Enneagram is that there are nine basic types of people, therefore, everyone who takes the test is assigned a “type” on a scale from one to nine — Reformer, Helper, Achiever, Individualist, Investigator, Loyalist, Enthusiast, Challenger and Peacemaker… respectively.

But it gets more complex. It gets so much more complex…

Each of the nine types also has a “wing.” That is, a seven is either a seven-eight, or a seven-six. Seven-eights are different from seven-sixes because one Enthusiast is more of a Challenger of people while the other is more of a Loyalist to them.

Now Your Script Character Has 18 Possible Types

But it breaks down further. Each type also has a tendency. Just because two people are Seven-Sixes, doesn’t mean they are the same. It means they are similar. Each of the eighteen subtypes also has instinctual variants they use to feel protected: Self-preservation, Relational, and Social.

Immediately, your character development writing now has fifty-four specific subtypes of people, in a pyramid-like scheme, showing in what ways they are different. But there’s more, and it’s the most important part…

The Enneagram supposes that there are nine “levels” that people exist on. That is, on Level One, they are their best selves, whereas at Level Nine, they are their worst. As one would expect, someone at Level Nine of one subtype is homicidal, while someone at Level Nine of another subtype, is suicidal.

It comes down to what a specific person tends to do as they hit their breaking point. Some people could never harm another, while some could never go through with suicide, but the truth is we never know what we are capable of until we reach true rock bottom.

Screenplay Character Development Writing Made Easy

Thanks to the Enneagram, we KNOW how our characters would react in those situations. For example, want to write a villain hell-bent on world-destruction, yet make his motivation seem real?

Start at Level Nine of each subtype and work your way up. How could this villain have gotten here, really? How can we make it plausible. As you can see, the Enneagram isn’t only effective with character work, it can even be used to find plot points.

So, with fifty-four subtypes and nine levels based upon a state being, you are looking at FOUR HUNDRED EIGHTY SIX potential jumping off points for any character you create.

This is why I love the Enneagram. It may not be scientific, but it is realistic. And, as writers, we don’t need scientific proof that the system works… we only need it to feel real, and the Enneagram does just that.

When starting any screenplay, I take the Enneagram test in the voice of my main protagonist and every one of my major characters. I also read up (although at this point I have it memorized) on the type, and sub-type.

I then look at another Enneagram book I have and make a note of what Level I think my character lives his/her life at. Then I note where I want to take them… and I figure out how to get them there.

The Enneagram Is The Best Tool For Script Character Development

This is because it offers real traits and motivations of personality types. Then it gets more specific with sub-types. And on and on.

I suggest visiting enneagraminstitute.com for more information, as well as looking on sites like Amazon for additional Enneagram materials. They are worth their weight in gold, and I know the Enneagram site itself, is free. Check it out.

You should immediately see what I mean about the system being “motive-based.” And what are our characters, if not motivated? Two-dimensional and fictitious.

These character development tips may not tell you all you need to know on how to write a character, but they will push you in the right direction to making sure your characters get a “solid” in the next set of script coverage notes you get.

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David Shotwell was a co-screenwriter of the indie comedy Love & Air Sex. He is a busy screenwriter as well as reader for our company and many other big name studios and production companies. 

2 Comments
  1. Lee says:

    This is awesome. Writing characters is my weak spot.

  2. Veronica says:

    Awesome indeed, just understood certain behaviors…

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