Developing Characters for Your Short Film

Recently I was talking with someone about my next short film project Big and Tall and this question popped up, "How do you write good characters for a short film?"

I had to stop and think about the question. I don't know that I've ever been able to really eloquently articulate my own process when it comes to writing characters for my short films. I know what works for me. But what works for me might not work for someone else. That's what I love about the creative process. Everyone needs to find his/her own method.

Developing characters for a short film does require many of the same disciplines as developing characters for a feature-length film or novel. The main difference is time. In a five to fifteen-minute film, you have very little time to develop a character. That doesn't mean, however, that your character can't have an arc throughout the story.

Here are a few things I've learned about how to write characters for short screenplays:

  1. Give your characters clear and specific goals. What is it they really want? Sometimes this is different from what they say they want.
  2. Make it difficult for your characters to reach their goals. What else can go wrong?
  3. Make your characters learn something along the way; about their own lives, the lives of others, or the world around them. How are they different at the end from where they were at the beginning? 
  4. Develop a backstory for your characters. Obviously you won't have time to explore every facet of their lives, but knowing where they came from and what got them to this particular point will inform your writing.
  5. Always ask "Why?" This will challenge you to create clear motivations for your characters. When you write a specific action into the script, or a specific piece of dialogue, always ask yourself "Why?" Make sure you understand exactly why your characters are saying and doing the things that you're writing for them. 

Do you have anything to add to this list? What other advice would you give to screenwriters? Leave your tips in the Comments section.