Creating Believable Characters


By Carla Iacovetti.

Carla Iacovetti

Carla Iacovetti

Glenn M. Benest

Glenn M. Benest

“Structure is very important to a story, but you’re really missing the boat if you think structure is the only reason that a movie works. The big difference is character.  The heart of the movie is how deeply you (the writer) and the audience connect emotionally with the protagonist.”  — Glenn M. Benest

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung was famous for his understanding of archetype in his theory of the human psyche.  Based on the ancient Greek definition, the word archetype comes from the word archein, which means “original or old,” and typos, which means “pattern, model or type,” and is seen in any model or type that is copied or duplicated.

Jung believed that these archetypes – universal, mythic characters reside in all of humanity and represent the basic human patterns found in the human condition.

Carl Gustav Jung

Carl Gustav Jung

Archetypes have been portrayed for thousands of years through mythology, religion, legends and all forms of art. While there are a wide variety of archetypes, Jung isolated twelve primary types that represent human desire.  Most humans have many archetypes working together to help construct their personality.

For a psychologist, archetypes help unravel the inner workings of a patient’s personality, but for a writer, archetypes are the blueprint for building well-crafted, believable characters.  A writer should have a keen grasp on these archetypes. It is an important part of the creative process, and one that should not be ignored.  There are many layers to the human personality, and in the same manner, your characters should be multi-layered.

Waldo Salt

Waldo Salt

“Waldo Salt, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter, who wrote Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, was one of the most influential screenwriters who talked about screenwriting in a way that could really help you as a writer. Salt believed the heart of the movie lies in how deeply you connect with the protagonist,” says Benest.

You can have a beautifully, well-constructed story, but it’s not going to necessarily be successful or move an audience the way a story will that has a character that grabs the audience.  The more complex the character, the more the audience will relate psychologically to them.  Multifaceted characters are undeniably recognizable by the way they respond to conflict, and we recognize these fictitious personalities as distinctively human.

There is a sort of crazy connection between story structure and characterization. We have 99 – 110 minutes to move a story.  This is not fiction writing.  We do not have 1440 pages to map out a story the way Leo Tolstoy did with War and Peace.  Screenwriting is a very different animal.  There are these elements in structure that are pertinent to the development of the story, and yet if the audience does not connect to the character, it will be a wash.

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

“You have to tell a beginning, middle and end with a character that goes through a myriad of changes, and it is hard to do.  Screenwriting is very succinct; in fact, it’s more like poetry than any other form of writing.  It begins with the writer making that emotional connection with his or her character, which is then conveyed, to the audience.  When that connection isn’t made, the screenplay isn’t successful,” says Benest.

It is good to remember that good characterization is a part of good structure.  Creating a believable protagonist – a character who is going to drive the story must grab and hold the audience.  When the audience doesn’t care about the lead character, your story is in trouble.

“Remember Tony Soprano from the HBO television drama series created by David Chase?  Soprano was a self-serving, loyal, violent, narcissistic, psychopath that was consistent with the mob-boss type character, but the one part of him that made him very unique is his little boy quality.  He was vulnerable and he cared about how people thought about him. He delighted in things much the way a little boy would.  Even though he was a killer, he was believable, distinctive and we fell for him. He broke away from the stereotype and was a great model for ideal character development,” says Benest.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos

There are different approaches to creating characters. The protagonist must be the most interesting and well developed of all the other characters.  You would never want other characters to be as complex, or it will take away from the protagonist

“It’s not about a formula; it’s about connecting to the character.  You must let the story tell itself.  There are many movies that break those so-called rules completely.  If a writer doesn’t have a connection to the character, the audience won’t either,” says Benest.

Jerry Lewis had an understanding of character development.  Even though Lewis was a master of the absurd, all of his films were character-driven.

We can all learn structure.  Blake Snyder was great at teaching structure, but the real magic lies in being able to bring life and reality to a character, and that’s not something that is easily taught.

Why do we (the audience) relate to a character like Bob Wiley in What About Bob?  The guy was a nut, but seriously complex.  How do we somehow relate to a guy walking around wiping down everything with a tissue before touching it because he’s a germ-a-phoebe?  Why do we connect with a guy like Harry in When Harry Met Sally?  Harry is obnoxious, opinionated, rejected and depressed, but he is honest.  For example, his opinion of male-female friendships is honest, but it will become problematic for him as the story evolves.  He believes that ultimately a man and woman cannot be friends, because sex will always get in the way.

Sally:  I thought you didn’t believe men and women could be friends.

Harry:  When did I say that?

Sally: On the ride to New York.

Harry: …Yes. That’s right. They can’t be friends…(figuring this out)…unless both of them are involved with other people. Then they can. This is an amendment to the earlier rule…although that doesn’t work either.

Just when it “seems” that everything is going along well with Sally (his new best friend), they have sex and it ruins their friendship.  In fact, Sally throws in the towel after he explains to her that having sex was a mistake. “I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything, I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything?”

Meg Ryan as Sally Albright and Billy Crystal as Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally

Meg Ryan as Sally Albright and Billy Crystal as Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally

“Think about movies that we remember?  It’s the character we remember, not really the plot,” says Benest. “For example, Sleepless In Seattle breaks the romantic comedy rule.  He doesn’t even meet her until the end of the movie, yet it was incredibly successful. Ironically, The Wedding Planner was perfectly structured, but it didn’t grab us in the same way.”

No doubt, the better characters have a psychological connection.  A writer doesn’t necessarily have to study psychology, but the more understanding one has of psychology will help in their ability create a masterful character arc. They will be able to show a sense of the journey while on the road to transformation, and that is powerful. It is this process that enables an audience to identify more completely with the main character and identification is paramount.

Psychology for Screenwriters, by William Indick

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

In the book Psychology for Screenwriters, William Indick, Ph.D. discusses the power of identification.  He refers to it as a “psychological force,” and reveals how the “illusion on the screen becomes intertwined with their own psychological lives.”  “Identification is an unconscious process where the people in the audience actually become the characters that they identify with in the film, and they experience, vicariously, the same psychological development and catharsis that the characters on the screen experience,” says Indick.

“If you have a great character in a film, and they have a great character arc, then the audience will connect with them emotionally, and that’s what makes a great movie,” says Benest.

In the movie Arthur, Arthur goes from being a spoiled narcissistic playboy, to a giving, generous, good-hearted man who loves a woman. The character makes us mad, but we somehow relate to him.  Arthur is a happy drunk.  How many happy drunks do you actually know?  However, it’s a comedy, so you suspend belief and go with it. While you love Arthur, you want him to grow up.  Benest believes that Arthur has a very well orchestrated character arc.  “It was Arthur that made you love that movie, and its Arthur that you remember, not the plot or story.  We remember his unique character,” says Benest.

Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach in Arthur (1981)

Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach in Arthur (1981)

A writer needs to have a certain amount of depth and awareness of how a character changes and grows, and life experiences will help with the realization of that process. “No one changes willingly.  You have to have an understanding of patterns, and how human beings struggle to change,” says Benest.

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Beginning writers frequently have issues with structure, and will frequently gravitate toward formulas for writing.  Benest believes that Snyder’s Save the Cat tends to promote formulaic writing.

“Undoubtedly, Snyder has had a lot of great things to say, but I do resist when someone tells me that something has to happen on a certain page,” says Benest.  Snyder did however have the ability to describe concise structure in a very generic way, but it should not be looked at as a formula for screenwriting.  It should be used loosely.

“A writer shouldn’t take a book like Save The Cat word for word. It’s like trying to give people a formula, and formulas don’t work. The structure and plot must evolve on its own. What makes a great story or screenplay is when you break the formula once in awhile – do something unexpected.  When you follow a formula, the magic is gone,” says Benest.

Perhaps the key with writing believable characters has more to do with finding the balance, because as much as we would like to do away with structure, we cannot.  Screenwriting is probably the most structured form of writing out there, with the exception of poetry.  One of the main elements of structure is good characterization. You really cannot separate structure from creating a good protagonist.

“Look at structure more organically from the point of the character.  Where does the character start?  Where does the character go?  Where does the character end?  If you look at writing that way, you’ll end up having a story that is going to pull in an audience, says Benest.  This kind of writing is far more challenging than creating a structure that simply has a beginning, middle and end.  In order to accomplish this, a writer needs to have an understanding of people and how they change.  No one changes willingly, because people are stuck in their patterns.

As writers, how do we portray that blood, sweat and tear emotion in a character that can be seen on the screen?

Transformation of a Protagonist: Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer and Justin Henry as Billy Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer

Transformation of a Protagonist: Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer and Justin Henry as Billy in Kramer vs. Kramer

Every great story is about how a character goes from A to Z.  For example, how does a character move from betrayal to trust?  This progression exemplifies the arch of a character, which is mandatory for transformation.  “In the film Kramer vs. Kramer, the protagonist goes from being a non-engaged father to a wonderful father.  In the real world that cannot happen in two hours – it often takes years.  How do you go from a selfish lover to a giving lover?  Normally, this would take years, but in a screenplay we don’t have that kind of time.  However, we must show it realistically.  In life we are always facing setbacks and we hate change.  We move two steps forward, and then take a step backwards,” says Benest.

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

“In the book, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, wrote about the steps that a character must go through,” says Benest.  Egri says, “When we read a bad play carefully, we are struck by the author’s ignorance of his characters: and when we read a good play carefully, we are struck by the wealth of information the writer displays…a character has the capacity to completely reverse himself under internal and external stimulus.  Like every other organic being, he changes continuously.”

The way that a writer displays information about the characters is incredibly important.  Part of being able to reveal pertinent information about the characters comes from a writer knowing and caring about the characters.  “Unmistakable character creates plot, not vice versa,” says Egri.

In a screenplay we want to condense time as much as possible.  Condensing time makes things more dramatic.  How do you go from being a selfish love to a generous lover?  In real life, this would take years. We don’t have time in a screenplay, but we still need to show the emotions, the setbacks and the journey, which is not a clear-cut progression.  It is imperative that we see our characters struggle and grow, and in order for that to happen, we need to not only connect with them on a human/psychological level, but we need to make them complex.  Complexity comes about by establishing a motive, goal or internal need within the character. The audience must see an internal struggle.  “When a writer is able to make a connection with the protagonist and convey his or her internal need or struggle, the audience will then emotionally connect to the character,” says Benest.

If this so-called journey is pivotal to transformation, and character arc reveals the status of a character as it evolves throughout the story, then the importance of good characterization cannot be understated.  As a character adapts to the changes in his or her world and faces internal and external struggles, the plot moves forward to a brilliant resolve, and this is not only exceptional screenwriting but also a basis for universal appeal.



Professional journalist, awarded poet, screenwriter and screenwriting instructor from Santa Barbara, California.

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