One of the most critical phases in the writing of a first-class script is the upfront character exploration work that is done before a draft is tackled. Different writers approach this in different ways. Some do extensive work and others very little if any at all. In my next several blog posts I’m going to lay out an approach I’ve developed in my own writing and that I’ve “field tested” and refined with hundreds of scriptwriting students and clients over the years.
So, starting at the beginning:
After you’ve settled on a story idea that seems promising and you have at least a somewhat clear sense of who and what the story is about and where it might land, a good place to start your work is by giving your principle characters names.
I know this sounds so obvious that you might wonder why it’s worth spending any time on it, but let’s look a little deeper into these critical labels you’re going to be attaching to your characters and why choosing the right names can help launch you deeper into your story early on and actually help you write your script.
If you already have names in mind, take another look at them and ask yourself: Do you really feel comfortable with these labels? Do they accurately give the feel for the characters that you want? Take a little time to think about this now because you’ll be living with these people for a long time.
Names have a way of giving a slant to a person and can seriously influence how someone is perceived by others. Everyone has certain names that for them conjure up types of personalities. A name can hint at an extra degree of formality or sexiness or athleticism or whatever. So make an effort to assign names that hit the target for you, that fit what you feel about your characters’ personalities.
Symbolism, on the other hand, or having a name carry some sort of special message can become a nuisance and is for most scripts too artificial. Just choose something you think you’ll be comfortable working with and that feels right. Also, give each character a first and last name. You may not ever use the last name in your script, but you need to know what it is because it’s imperative that you think of your characters as real people if you ever expect them to come fully to life.
This is an important choice. You’ll be writing these names hundreds and hundreds of times (or at least seeing them hundreds of times in the formatted script as it takes shape in Final Draft or some other software). The mere act of writing them over and over will subconsciously send messages to you about the personalities they represent. They’ll become as synonymous with your characters as your own name is to you.
If a name isn’t working, you can always change it. Even Henrik Ibsen’s drafts show interesting renamings as he worked through his plays, as is the case with many writers. However, be aware that after a certain point this isn’t so easy. Characters, like real people, have a way of fusing with the initial names they’re given. This is why it’s worth spending a little time pondering this early on.
With names given to your principle characters, the next phase is to work through what I have come to call the short form biography—the subject of my next post.