Characterization Strategies

Who is your story about? Why have you chosen this person? The answers to these key questions will go far toward helping you write your short script.

The first impulse of writers of short films is not to spend much time on the characters. The thinking is that because you have less time, you therefore need less characterization. This is totally wrong. In fact, your short film relies principally on character. Unlike in the long film, there is little time to deal with the complexity of relationships, but the viewers must feel that your main character has a complexity appropriate to the type of story you choose to tell. For example, in Incident at Owl Creek, it is true that we don’t have a profound understanding of all the dimensions of the principal character, but we fully understand his desire to live rather than to die. Similarly, we understand the two main characters in Two Men and a Wardrobe to be naive in a cynical world—but at least they believe in something! In both cases we understand and empathize with the characters in the context of their goals. Short films, therefore, do not tend to develop complex relationships between characters, but they do rely on complex characters to tell the story.

Another feature of characterization in the short film is the speed with which the main character must be established. Again, time constraints mean that the writing has to exercise considerable economy in characterization. Here the suggestions of E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel are relevant. Forster speaks of flat characters and rounded characters. Flat characters, he says, in their purest form are constructed around a single idea or quality; one advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they appear. Rounded characters, however, are more complex and, unlike the flat ones, are capable of surprising us. A rounded character has the incalculability of life about him or her and is a more unpredictable character.1

Flat characters, because they are readily recognizable, are often the starting point for the writer. Two naive men, one Southern gentleman, a young urban boy—these are all at one level stereotypes. Again, the advantage is that they are readily identifiable. It is for the writer to shift them slightly, while not losing the benefit of recognition by the audience, so as to gain an edge of surprise by having the character ever so slightly rounded. A third aspect of character development draws on the Aristotelian position that character is habitual behavior. To put it another way, we are what we do.2 The characters in screenplays are also defined by their actions.

Working with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s ideas, we begin to add a dynamism to those actions. Stanislavsky puts forth that the inner life of the character is concealed by the outer circumstances of his or her life.3 If Aristotle suggests that action defines character, Stanislavsky suggests that the energy of character is often a by-product of the tension between what the character wants to do and what he feels he should do in a given situation. Elia Kazan, the great director of theater and film, used this dynamic tension and brought the character to externalize these complex feelings. As a director, he looks to turn psychology into behavior.4 This means transforming what a character is thinking and feeling into physical action. If Aristotle emphasizes behavior as character, and Stanislavsky links that behavior to an inner life (that may be at odds with external circumstances), Kazan points out the dominance of inner life as the more complex—or for the character, more true—source of character. The relationship between inner feeling and outer action is very useful for the writer, because it is those outer actions that define character.

Positioning the Character

In most forms of storytelling, there is a variety of options available to the storyteller as to the position of the main character in the story. A third-person position makes the character an observer; a second-person position places the character in the role of guide throughout the story; finally, the first-person position places the character in the middle of the narrative—the story is happening to the character.

In prose, poetry, the short story, long pieces of fiction, and plays, all of these choices can work and not be detrimental to our experience of the story. In film, however, the story often works best when the first-person approach is taken, so that the character is positioned in the middle of the story.

To illustrate, let’s explore what happens when the character is presented in the third person. In this type of story, the plot evolves, and the character watches it evolve. The character does not suffer because of the plot. The character may alter his or her views because of what he or she sees happen, but the character does not have a great deal at stake. The question then is this: What is the influence on us when we see the story as observers, watching the story just as the main character watches it?

Watching the story results in a diminution of dramatic opportunity. What conflict can the main character have, beyond a difference of opinion? The main character as voyeur does not have his or her goal directly challenged. Characters in the third person may modify their goals because of what they see, but there is no direct challenge in the narrative to their goals, because they do not come into contact with the other characters in the story. The result is that conflict, if it does exist between the main character and other forces or characters in the story, remains cerebral rather than emotional, and the dramatic tension in the story diminishes.

Why other forms of storytelling can succeed using a main character positioned in the third person has to do with the possibility in the other forms of having more than one voice. It is not unusual in a play or a poem to be aware of the author’s voice as well as the character’s voice. In film, the author’s voice must be subsumed under the voice of the main character. The reason for this is that in a play, a suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to accept the play as an experience. This is also the case in a poem, although in a poem the reader has far more control over the experience than he does when attending a play. A poem is privately read; it can be discarded at any point or picked up at any point. Once a performed play begins, although viewers can choose not to stay, if they do stay the actors and director hold greater control over the experience than the viewer does. Suspension of disbelief and control influences the readers and the viewers to accept the form and its characteristics.

In film, on the other hand, the story looks real. Far less suspension of disbelief is necessary, and the viewer has no control over the place or nature of the story. Consequently, the invitation to the viewer is to engage directly with the story. The main character offers us the most direct access to the story, and so the viewer enters the story through the main character. Multiple voices confuse us and impede identification with the main character. First-person identification is the most powerful. The third person, a form not as involving as first person, is used in film satire.

We may be aware, as viewers of short film, of the voice of the author, but the voice is generally secondary to our relationship with the main character. Authors, filmmakers, and writers whose views are not subsumed under the main character’s are accused of being “stylists” or, worse, pretentious filmmakers. Both labels imply a failure to engage the viewer in the film narrative. The route to that engagement is through the main character.

What happens if the writer attempts a second-person voice for the character, the position of character as interpreter? There are film stories in which the main character alternates between the first-and second-person point of view. In John Osborne’s screenplay of Tom Jones, the main character is generally a conventional first-person main character but occasionally becomes a second-person main character: at those moments, he turns directly to the screen and addresses the audience.

The same technique of using the main character to narrate is found in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Whether it is a direct, onscreen second-person appeal to the audience or the use of the main character as an offscreen narrator, the result is to alter our relationship with the main character, from one of involvement to one where we step out of the relationship and reflect upon it. This distancing device serves to generate empathy for Alex in A Clockwork Orange.5 In Tom Jones, however, the technique does nothing but draw attention to itself. In this sense, the Brechtian device of alienating us from the character in order to reflect upon the subtextual political or social commentary does not work. It is a style that is counterproductive to the dramatic elements of the story, much as the third-person position is.

The second-person position, then, is a risk for the writer. The danger is that the writer can fracture our relationship with the story. The gain can be that the writer succeeds in commenting upon the character, his or her behavior, and his or her view of society.

The best approach to the main character is to use the first-person position, in which the character is in the middle of the story. Events happen to the character. Barriers exist in the story that challenge the character’s goals. In this classical situation, the position of the character best serves the narrative purpose of the film script, and the writer can take advantage of the mechanics of conflict, polarities, and a rising action in order to engage the viewer most effectively in the screen story.

The Main Character and Secondary Characters

The main character’s position in the story is only one issue of positioning you will have to consider. The second concern has to do with the positioning of the secondary characters in relation to the main character. This is crucial because only through interaction with the other characters does the main character move through the plot. The rungs of the dramatic ladder are, in a sense, built with the secondary characters. The issue for the writer, then, is how to deploy the secondary characters for maximum impact in the story.

Given the issue of scale in the short film, writers employ fewer secondary characters than in the long film. The amount of time devoted to developing the secondary characters is also far less. Although this may mean disproportionate reliance on stereotypes for the secondary characters, a more productive approach is to relate the secondary characters to their functions in the plot of the film. They have specific purposes in the plot, so complex characterization is far less important in their case.

In this sense, the secondary characters may be considered catalysts for the plot. Generally, there are two types of secondary characters: those who propel the main character toward his or her goal, and those who stand as barriers to the achievement of that goal. In Incident at Owl Creek, the Union soldiers are clearly barriers to the main character achieving his goal. His wife is also a secondary character, but one who helps move the main character toward his goal.

The Main Character and the Antagonist

In the longer film, the relationship of the main character to the antagonist is used to create a heroic dimension in the main character. The greater the adversary, the greater the hero. However, heroic action is less credible in the short film, because of its scale. Consequently, the antagonist has to fulfill other narrative goals. The antagonist is the principal barrier to the main character as presented in the plot. The characterization of the antagonist, however, is not used to amplify the character of the protagonist. The relationship is no less important than it is in the long film, but by necessity it is different.

What is the narrative goal of the antagonist? The antagonist must provide a level of opposition to the main character that makes his or her goal difficult to achieve. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the great student film by George Lucas, THX 1138. The main character in this futuristic film is a human being (played by Robert Duvall) who is trying to escape his life as a drone in an underground world controlled by technology. In the main character’s particular journey, there is no one character who fulfills the role of antagonist. Rather there is a plethora of control devices, computer-driven and machine-operated. In this world, computers, as an expression of technology, are the enemies of human beings. As a group, they function as the antagonist of THX 1138. They are the masters from whom the main character is trying to escape.

In the plot of the film, the difficulty of mastering the computers, because of the scope of technology they can call upon, makes it seem almost impossible for the main character to escape. They oppose all forms of humanness. The antagonists require total submission by the main character; the protagonist requires freedom from the tyranny of the machines. Here the classic science fiction struggle between humanity and technology works, because the protagonist–antagonist relationship is at the very core of the dramatic idea. Short films work best when the protagonist–antagonist relationship drives the plot of the screen story.


The full range of physical and behavioral characteristics should be employed to develop your story. The physical looks of character can help. Height, weight, age, gender, together with cultural and professional characteristics, flesh out the look of a character. The more specific you can be about the character, the more likely those qualities can be helpful in your story.

If your story concerns peer relationships, the emphasis on appearance becomes very important. Recall the young African-American boy in Adisa Lasana Septuri’s The View From Here, described in the last chapter. The fact that the boy has a limp and that the other boys are playing football presents a situation where the main character has a physical impediment to his being accepted by his peer group.

We can imagine other stories where the physical characteristics of the main character are central to the story. For example, let’s imagine a story of a first-time director who gets his chance when his mentor is fired. This story is vitalized by the youth of the main character and his relationship with the older mentor. Another story of powerful forces in place to oppose the main character might be one of the (physically) shortsighted bureaucrat who begins to have visions of a new way of doing business. Here rigidity and imagination are key physical elements.

Behavioral characteristics can be as important as physical ones. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lechter (played by Anthony Hopkins) is a brilliant, but insane, psychiatrist who is a great danger to his patients. The behavioral quality of madness in a man who society especially expects to be sane is an excellent example of how behavioral characteristics can be used in a dramatically dynamic manner.

Behavior needn’t be as extreme as that of Hannibal Lechter. It can be less obvious. Here, introductory psychology courses become useful. In a recent classroom discussion, students voiced considerable dissatisfaction about a character in Joe Eszterhas’s Music Box. The problem was that the character was a good father and grandfather and seemingly a good citizen of his adopted country. He was also tremendously fit for a senior citizen. The flaw was that he had been a Nazi collaborator in Hungary and had killed ruthlessly. The students were dissatisfied that the character in the screen story did not own up and confess his past to his own daughter, the protagonist of the story, who defends him legally and emotionally until the evidence becomes irrefutable.

How could the character lie so deftly, even to his own daughter? The answer is that the behavior he exhibits is that of a sociopath. He believes in all sincerity what he says—but in the next breath he can be caught up in a lie, which he will deny with indignation. What the students were confronted with in this character was a behavioral characteristic—lying—that was right at the character’s dramatic core. Without it, the plot and the main character’s dilemma would have been far less interesting.

Behavioral characteristics run the full gamut of human behavior. They require that writers be sufficiently observant to use these characteristics for effect.

In both physical and behavioral characterizations, writers tend to use extremes. Extremes are not only more useful dramatically, they are also more memorable for the audience. We are gripped by extremes for an obvious reason: they are more sensational than middle-range qualities. Film stories are extremely well suited to the sensational.

Singular Qualities of Character

The behavioral and physical qualities of characters are important dimensions. However, they do not necessarily link character to goal. Here a sense of purpose is necessary. It is critical that writers link the character to a goal powerfully, in order to animate the plot.

Different writers will speak of intentional or energized characters. It doesn’t matter which term you use. What is important is that there be a palpable internal quality that pushes your character in a particular direction. This drive is as important to your story as the dominant behavioral or physical qualities you have given your character. The drive is the fuel for the plot. Without it your character is passive, acted upon rather than reacted to. A passive character can work in a short film, but by choosing such a character, you flatten the conflict and position your character as much as an observer as a participant. The result can be counterproductive in dramatic terms. The active, obsessed main character is more useful in the narrative. Once the plot begins, there is a natural tension between plot and character that will carry the audience easily through the story.

Drawing Out the Character

Writers may use several other devices to make a character more vivid for an audience. The quality most often used to engage us with the character is humor. Whether the character uses humor to deal with his or her situation or whether the humor arises from the character’s response in a situation, humor plays a critical role.

A second device is to allow the character to step out of his or her public self in an opportunity for private revelation. While the audience primarily sees the character in action in the world, the writer can introduce the private dimension by putting the character into a vulnerable situation. We expect a particular response from the character based on our experience of the character so far. If, instead, we see a vulnerable or more private, less-anticipated response or side to the character, the writer has succeeded in setting up the kind of paradox that yields sympathy for the character. We feel the character has shared a private moment with us, the viewers; the relationship between character and viewer is thereafter transformed.

A third device writers use to draw us into a character is the role played by the antagonist. The more powerful the antagonist’s resistance and power, the more likely we will empathize with the plight of the main character. All of us have had goals thwarted by people or events. We understand the position of the main character, and we will empathize with him or her. It is critical that the character try to move toward his or her goal, but it is just as critical that the writer draw us into the character’s struggle.

The Importance of Research

It should be clear by this point that the writer not only must have a clear understanding of the craft of writing, but also should be a student of human behavior. To understand behavior is to be able to use action purposefully in a story. We are not suggesting that you rush off and do a Ph.D. in psychology. We are, however, suggesting that you become curious about human behavior.

We recommend that you make notes and observations of behavior. When you observe a young child pinching a dog, speculate as to why. You don’t have to be right about the reason, but you should formulate a reason that makes sense to you. Why does your doctor write prescriptions with a fountain pen? Why does the grocery clerk double-check the punched-in prices and the bagged groceries? Why does the professor arrive late every week for class? Why does the surgeon doze off as soon as he sits down at lunch?

The questions are endless, and only by observing, asking, and understanding will you begin to be able to employ human behavior characteristics in a dramatic way. The key here is research. It doesn’t matter if the script you are working on is a work of fiction. The characters in your story have to attain a certain credibility, and so your powers of observation will be called upon to make the characters interesting and believable.

Your research can be observational or based on others’ observations and conclusions. Whether you depend on the library or the lunch bar as your research center, the key is to use those resources to help your storytelling. If you are open to human behavior, your stories will improve markedly.

How much research is enough? Put it this way: when it comes to human behavior, we are all students always. There is never enough information. There are only the deadlines, self-imposed and real, to suggest it’s time to make the film.

Achieving Believability

The drive of the character can be interpreted as manic energy, or it can be interpreted as the desire to fill a deep-seated need. In either case, the comprehension of the drive is the first step toward the audience believing the character and believing in the character. Also, by understanding motivation, the writer can begin to imagine the physical and behavioral characteristics of the main character.

It is critical for the writer to use a character who has both physical and behavioral qualities that aid the story. If the emphasis is on one element over the other, the characterization may be too flat, and believability will be compromised. If both coexist in balance, the main character is more rounded and more useful.

Just as the dramatic possibilities are optimized when the writer places the character in the middle of the story, believability will be enhanced if the writer places the character appropriately in the scene. Place your character in a situation that will optimize believability.

The character’s behavior in the scene should be an indirect expression of his or her character. Characters whose behavior can be expressed as “get me out of this scene” are not only less credible but not very interesting. Taking the opposite strategy, that of describing a character who wishes nothing better than to be there but acts as if he or she doesn’t, we have a tension between character and action that is purposeful to the process of characterization. Simply put, the tension between thought and action creates the sense of being caught, possibly trapped. The tension is recognizable as all too human, and implicitly the character seems more credible.

Finally, the specifics of the character’s speech in pattern and dialect can enhance believability. We all come from a specific place, belong to a family, and live in a particular time. It’s not simply a matter of giving the Scotsman a Scottish accent. The idioms of his region, the phrases of his profession, the influence of his father, and so on, all will influence his speech. If the writer has been specific about the qualities of speech (here the research is important), we will believe the character.

In this phase of writing, it is helpful for you to develop a full character sketch, with as much specificity as possible. Include details such as birth order, colloquialisms, and turns of phrase specific to the time period. Middle children, for example, tend to be overlooked; they may talk a lot to be noticed. The meaning of what they say is less important than the degree that they talk in order to get attention. You should note gender, age, and profession, paying specific attention to how these elements might influence speech.

Achieving Complexity

Characters may have drive as well as numerous other characteristics that make them believable. They may employ humor to be charming and use language that tells us they are working-class Scots from the far north of the British Isles. But there remain a number of steps in the writing process before we view the character as a complex human being—inscrutable, fascinating, real. In order to achieve complexity, the writer needs a character who is a person as well as a symbol—in a sense, a character who is both a type and an archetype. Start with the signature of the character. By signature we mean identifiable signage. Some characters have a particular phrase identified with them; others have a marked behavior or response to situations. Whether it is a phrase or a behavior, signage is very useful in marketing your character.

It is also the first step in the creation of a more complex character. The next step is to give your character a repetitive behavior pattern. This may be habitual behavior or opportunities to reinforce verbal or behavioral signage. In either case, you should introduce this early in the story and reinforce it as the story proceeds.

Repetitive behavior, particularly in situations of stress, is understandable and will both identify and humanize your character. Excellent examples of habitual behavior include eating and greeting people in a particular manner; a compulsive need for human contact, such as touching; always mailing letters from the same postbox; and always taking the same route to work. The key element here is that repetitive behavior, particularly with respect to everyday events, suggests the power of the emotions over the power of reason.

Repetitive behavior also suggests an underlying feeling. The contrast between the emotional and the rational conveys the idea that both levels are constant and in conflict. The behavior also implies that the emotions are winning out. The resulting impression is of a character struggling with him or herself, and the repetitive behavior suggests he or she is failing. This process creates the sense that the character is a more complicated person than he or she might seem. The impression is very useful to the writer. It deepens the credibility of the character.

Perhaps the most challenging dimension for the writer is to create a character who is both an individual and an archetype. At what point does the little boy in The Red Balloon become every little boy? At what point do the two men who carry the wardrobe in Two Men and a Wardrobe become everyman? In both films the repetitive behavior of the characters is excellent habitual signage, but we have to turn to the plots to illustrate how the archetype is achieved. Neither film employs a realistic tone. To put it another way, the antirealistic impulse to fantasy runs freely in the narrative. How else can we explain the devotion of these two men to a wardrobe? Or that the balloon takes on more human characteristics than many of the humans in The Red Balloon?

Realism suggests that a balloon can’t be human and that slavish devotion to a wardrobe is either extreme anxiety or sheer madness. An antirealistic approach, on the other hand, tolerates the humanized balloon and the devotion to a dresser. When a balloon becomes the stand-in for a human, the discovery of the little boy in each of us is not far behind. Fantasy in the plot is the first prerequisite in creating a character who is both a type and an archetype.

A second prerequisite for the creation of an archetype is to frame the story in a genre that favors such a use of character. Satire, the fable, and the morality tale all use character in such a way that an archetype is very useful in supporting the core idea.

Finally, the catalyst that begins the plot can be a tool in creating an archetype, if it is an event with which the audience can readily identify: the delivery of a letter mailed four years earlier from a post office seven blocks away; the arrival of a draft notice; the traffic gridlock that prevents the character from arriving for the job interview; or the long-anticipated date of the semiformal. All of these catalytic events create a situation each of us can identify with.

What is the advantage of creating a character who is both type and archetype? Essentially, there is the layer of complexity arising from the kind of identification the viewers have with the situation of the character. When an archetype is created, the space for symbolism becomes even greater, and consequently the meaning of the film can be more layered than is first apparent.

We turn now to the two extreme forms of complex characters: the comic character and the tragic character.

The Comic Character

The comic character and the tragic character are essentially mirror versions of one another. The comic character is, however, more flexible, in that the writer can employ irony through the character. The comic character will also allow you a range of feeling much broader than the tragic character will allow. For example, you can present the comic character as a clown who reflects on his or her behavior, or as a fool who can reflect on the behavior of those around him or her as well. Although you may present both the fool and the clown as victims, they are far less victims than is the tragic character. There are even narrative circumstances under which the writer can present the fool as a hero, at least in relative terms.

The comic character also has potential for a measure of charisma or appeal, because he or she tends to stand apart from peers, whether as a result of their scorn or by the character’s choice.

Finally, the benefits of humor in the narrative accrue more readily when the main character is a comic character. The result may be charm, or it may be biting satire. In either case, the comic character tends to energize the narrative in a variety of positive ways.

The Tragic Character

The tragic character tends to be presented as a victim of the narrative. In fables, morality tales, and satire, as well as other types of stories, it is useful to have a tragic main character.

The challenge for the writer, however, is to show the main character struggling to not be a victim. Without that struggle, the narrative is flattened. It is also useful to overdevelop the narrative, so that the odds against the main character seem overwhelming. When the plot proceeds like an avalanche, we will have some empathy for the main character as he faces the inevitable.

Finally, the tragic character needn’t be sacrificed in vain. To “redeem” that sacrifice, you need a witness, a secondary character in the narrative, someone who will proceed with life differently after having observed the main character’s struggle—a person, in other words, who absorbs the lesson of the narrative. When the main character is a victim, we subtly shift our allegiance to the witness, thus surviving for another day.

Exercise 19

1.  List 10 objects you own that are meaningful to you, objects you would not want to give up. Characterize these objects briefly—for instance, my grandfather’s jackknife, the piece of blue glass I found at Jones Beach, and so on. Choose the five most important. Write any changes in the descriptions you would like.

2.  Pick a fairy tale and picture the main character. Describe his or her life. Imagine the possessions that might be meaningful to him or her. List five of these in the same way, as in Number 1. For instance, in “Little Red Riding Hood” you might list the following: the red-hooded cape my mother made for me; my new patent leather shoes; the little clock my grandmother gave me for my birthday; my jump rope; my collection of stones from the forest.

3.  Write a short paragraph in which your character is alone in a room, then perhaps outside, and in some way handles, wears, or uses each of the objects. Remember to use present tense, as in all scriptwriting, and be sure to describe only what you can see and hear. Do not include thoughts or feelings—these must be expressed in the handling of the objects. Remember also that character can be fleshed out by habitual behavior; here is a chance to show us how your protagonist behaves when alone.

4.  After you’ve finished the last two steps of the exercise, read them aloud and try to answer the following questions from the evidence on the page: Does your character enjoy life? Is your character active physically? Is your character reflective? Is your character sensuous? Is your character sad or uneasy? Is your character eager to find new ways of doing things?

The goal here is to understand as much as possible about your character before you begin to write your script.


1. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956).

2. Aristotle, Poetics, ed. Francis Fergusson, trans. and introduction by S. H. Butcher (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), 62.

3. Konstantin Stanislavsky, Creating a Role, ed. Hermine I. Popper (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1961).

4. Elia Kazan, notebook on directing A Streetcar Named Desire. See also Elia Kazan, A Life (New York: Knopf, 1988).

5. As a thoroughly despicable main character, he needs all the empathy he can get if we are to in any way identify with him, whether as a young person, a rebel, or a victim.

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