The characters in a modern dramatic film must be what I call three-dimensional or true to life. All human beings are far more than what they appear to be because to be human is to hold one’s true self within. And those characteristics can only be known through the person’s actions, words, and overall attitudes. It is the exteriors brought on by the interiors that help us to know a person. And what is a person? Psychologists tell us that a person is made up of ten percent genetics and ninety percent experiences. How a person has been affected by experiences in the past will be seen through the responses to current events as demonstrated through words and deeds. But that connection is not always evident.
In real life, we often see people act a particular way to an incident that may puzzle us or even confuse us. We find ourselves wondering such questions as “why did they do that?” or “what’s going on with her?” We’re not sure why people act and say the things they do, but we can assume that it has something to do with their past experiences. Even if we should ask a good friend these questions, they will answer by telling what they want you to believe are the answers without actually telling you what’s really going on.
This illustrates that element of mystery that exists about “other people” that we must bring to the big screen if we want it to be a “slice of life,” as Aristotle indicated in his writing over 2500 years ago. He wrote that if your story is to be believable, it has to seem as if it would happen in real life. And part of real life is the certainty that we can never know what’s going on in another person’s head. So, the screenwriter will know the character’s background intimately because she wrote it. But, she will choose to only allude to that past like real people do rather than explain exactly what has happened. Thus, each major character should have the element of mystery that all of us possess that makes us who we are.
These elements or responses are often termed “personality.” Some people believe these personality traits to be inherent or inherited through the DNA of their parents and grand-parents. Although that may be true to a small extent, a person learns to be who they are over time by experiencing life and by learning how to respond to certain things from other people. It is these influences that make us who we are.
Thus, it becomes imperative for the screenwriter to create characters with a diverse and often checkered past in order to have a character who can exist in the present with an eye to the future. There are any numbers of ways to go about creating these types of characters.
One way is to look at a character from a three-dimensional point of view. Every person has a basic philosophy of life that influences and governs the attitudes toward life in general. Every person makes decisions that turn into actions that other people can see and judge. Then human beings are emotional creatures allowing for emotional responses to things that happen around them.
The writer can give a character some basic philosophical beliefs such as a basic world view, personal values, general beliefs, and norms for living in the world. That basic philosophy of life is what usually governs a person’s whole being: thoughts, emotions, and actions. Understanding how this works allows the writer to delve deeply into a character’s past as well as giving the character a pre-disposition toward other characters, the situation, the conflict, the antagonist, and his or her own life existence within the story.
The following is a basic guide to writing a character biography. But before going to the guide, let me stress that it is NOT important to try to write out a biography in full detail. But, what does help is to focus on a series of chronological events that caused certain types of reactions that have made the character who/what he is today. For example, Indiana Jones states in the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark that he is afraid of snakes. That piece of information prepares the audience for the time when he falls into a pit full of snakes.