13 Secrets to Building a Great Character

by David Santo

Join me now as we travel to a public library in Michigan, where an angry woman types on a computer then bangs on the screen when she sees her words. She's writing her screenplay 30 minutes at a time because that's all she's allotted on the official library computer and she's really frustrated because the computer is slow. She knows I'm a writer and when she spots me, she smiles, peels off her wrap around sunglasses and pins them onto her right thigh - each tattooed calf on display below her jorts. One tattoo is Urkel. The other Jim Rome.

Her current script is pure genius and I know this because she tells me. It's about castrating male cats and is a metaphor for what she believes should happen to all men. So to be clear, she thinks chopping off my bitty parts will somehow end war, heal the sick, and advance our exploration of space. She's making a pretty good case until her anger grows more out of control and triggers a weird quirk - every new sentence she speaks starts with her chirping in a high falsetto...

Dep. Dep. Purple!

I ask her why she's so convinced her script is blockbuster material and she reveals her secret...

Dep. Dep. Purple! It's filled with amazing characters - like the fine folks she calls her friends that get drunk and accidentally brush their teeth with scar removal cream then choke to death when their tongue swells up.

I tell her, I like amazing characters, too, and that's what she is to me, but I don't think she understands. I lean over and peek at the screen to catch a glimpse of her literary genius but she's concerned I might steal her ideas so she maximizes another window and up pops a load of porn. At first, I'm embarrassed, but when I realize she's not, I ask her if these are friends of hers. She chuckles...

Dep. Dep. Purple! I wish.

Then she finally tells me what's really making her mad. As great as her characters are her script is running out of steam around page 40. I tell her that sounds like an outline problem but she assures me she has a good one. So I ask her to tell me more about these fascinating characters and she runs out of backstory after one idea. I probe deeper and ask her if she has a character checklist to help create depth and arc and by the rage my query encounters, I assume the answer's no.

Dep. Dep. Purple! What, you want a freaking list?


I tell her a list is exactly what I want. And it really comes in handy when you're building a character. For instance...

Bo Banana is the star of my 3D animated script entitled FRUIT. Bo is the rootin' tootin' line dancing sheriff of Canino's Fruit Market in Houston, Texas, and he's facing the biggest problem fruits everywhere must deal with...

People like to eat you.

So he invents the ''Fruit Replicator'', a machine that will manufacture real fruit in every way except one — it's not alive. Humans will get to enjoy this tasty new fruit and leave Bo and his friends to enjoy life.

But when the evil tomato in charge cuts the power, Bo must move his machine across the fruit market to the main cooler that has a backup generator so they can make replacement fruit before the big produce sale in the morning.

Now when you read this it sounds like I'm describing a plot. And I am. But upon closer examination everything is happening because of my hero and my villain and who they are. So in a sense, it all starts with character. And I'm not interested in getting into some silly debate about which comes first or is more important — plot or character — Lajos Egri vs. Aristotle; they arise simultaneously and interdependently - like 2 different sides of the same coin. Just know this for sure: you're gonna need great characters and also the knowledge on how to build them if your script is going to work. And if you answer the following questions your characters will spring to life in ways you never imagined.


  1. Has this person been successful in past relationships? Why?
  2. What is their relationship to their co-workers like? Why?
  3. What are the jobs they've held in the past? Why?
  4. What kind of friend are they? Why?
  5. Whom do they trust? Why?
  6. What is their secret? Why?
  7. What is their fear? Why?
  8. What promise did they make to themselves or someone else?
  9. Do they keep it?
  10. What does this person want more than anything?
  11. What is the physical object (twitch) that represents their internal struggle?
  12. What is the big choice they have to make that illustrates their character arc?
  13. The secret ingredient...


It's all so easy when you first start writing screenplays. You write script number one on the guts and glory of your life, the people and places you know, vibrant, palpable, and the feeling is electric! You mine the crazy scene makers, shape shifters and carnival barkers in your life.

Then you write your second script in similar fashion. But soon, you realize, around your third or fourth or fifth, you're rewriting the same exciting people and places you already wrote about. You need fresh blood - character blood - which leads me to secret ingredient #13.

Passion. The passion your character has to pursue something they desperately want more than anything and your personal passion as a writer to tell their story. Nothing else can replace this. No seminar or book will do.

So now you can whip out your checklist and write a character outline that will knock your socks off and right into the dryer because that's what people want. Scripts full of great characters with passion.

Updated: 11/10/2011