Standard Story Company

Writing Characters That Actors Love to Play

I’ve been brainstorming ideas for my next film, and one thing I want to prioritize is giving the actors the opportunity to do their best work.

Not only does this make it easier to get the best cast attached to the project, but it usually means the story has exciting characters and juicy conflict. Plus, so much of the magic of filmmaking comes from great actors working with rich material.

So how do you write for great performances? Let’s break it down.

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The situation is everything.

If your characters are not in an interesting situation, a situation with a serious challenge or conflict baked into it, then there won’t be much for the actors to work with.

That’s why it’s always fun to make life HARD for your characters (especially your lead).

Make it awkward. Make it scary. Make it dangerous. Leave room for emotional chaos. How your characters respond to these challenges is what makes them uniquely interesting.

For example: Let’s say we have a family dinner scene. The Daughter (our lead) was suspended from school today. Dad talked to the principal, but Mom doesn’t know yet.

Now, we could just have Dad and Daughter calmly break the news to Mom over dinner…

But that’s boring.

How can we make this situation HARDER for the daughter?

Well, let’s make sure Mom is already upset at something else. That means we see Daughter get afraid and hesitant.

And what if Dad promised he’d break the news to Mom, but when he sees how upset his wife is, he chickens out. He texts the daughter under the table saying SHE has to be the messenger. Now we see Daughter get surprised and angry (and more scared).

Let’s also make sure someone else knows her secret. Someone who can’t be trusted. Her little brother. Now we see Daughter placating her a-hole brother, and masking her anger with him.

This stew of escalating challenges and emotions are going to be a ton of fun both for the actor and the audience.

The power of secrets.

When writing, I think it’s helpful to regularly ask yourself “What’s the least amount of explanation I can get away with here?”

It’s tempting to spell out every emotion and motivation for our characters right there on the page. However, great performances often stem from what’s left unsaid. So try to have your characters ACT on their emotions, rather than tell us (or other characters) how they’re feeling. After all, it’s called ACTing, not explaining.

For example: Imagine a scene where a character is sitting at work and receives a call with devastating medical news.

Rather than having him respond to the doctor with a teary monologue about how this will affect his life, how could we observe what he’s feeling? If we can have him ACT on his emotions instead of say them, that should make the scene more original, less expository, and less melodramatic.

What if he reacts very calmly and politely over the phone, hangs up, then looks down to see that he’s snapped his pen in half. Ink is running all over his hand and papers. Surprised, he starts hurriedly cleaning up the mess… but then suddenly stops. He just stares at the spreading ink as his breathing gets shallow… and we cut to the next scene.

By allowing the actor to convey his emotions through his actions rather than his words, the scene becomes more impactful and authentic. It all goes back to that old adage: show don’t tell.

By the way, if you do have a character explain their beliefs or thoughts directly, consider having that character act in opposition to those words. Contradictions = complex characters. Complex characters = lots of fun to perform & watch.

Specificity breeds depth.

In the iconic Secret Santa episode of The Office, characters exchange gifts, only for chaos to ensue when Michael, spontaneously turns it into a “yankee swap,” mixing up everyone’s presents.

Showrunner Greg Daniels urged the writers to slow down when writing this episode and think deeply about each character’s gift selection, recognizing that these objects were more than just jokes, their gift choices would reveal volumes about their personalities and relationships.

Pam’s gift of a drawing she made of the office conveyed her thoughtfulness and sentimentality for their workplace, while Dwight’s gift of 200 paintball pellets for Phyllis showcased how oblivious he is to other peoples’ interests.

So at every opportunity for specificity with your characters, dig in and don’t settle for generic. These details aren’t just for the audience; they’re invaluable for actors, too. When your characters feel real and specific, the actors can add so much more specificity and life to them.

It’s these little touches that take your characters from good to unforgettable, because everything about them seems to “click”.

My favorite things this week:

📼 Movies: American Fiction I was excited to watch this Oscar-nominated film, both because the premise looked funny and because it’s based on a book from one of my old writing professors, Percival Everett! The film was more character-based, grounded, and emotional than I was expecting from the trailer, which made perfect sense for the idea behind the story. I loved the movie and am so happy for the author behind it, check it out in theaters now!

That’s it for this week.

Let’s make some movies.


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