In my recent explorations into video games, I’ve learned a lot about the similarities and differences between the video game experience and the movie viewing experience. One of the most interesting aspects I have taken away from learning about both these mediums is the importance of character choice.
Character choice is everything.
Think about anything that moves your plot forward and it almost always leads back to a decision a character made. These choices are important because it’s sometimes too easy, as a writer, to force the character to make decisions that will move the plot without having fleshed out whether it feels right.
There are many different ways to approach character choice, but here are the two biggest things to keep in mind when writing those important moments where your character has to make a choice.
Is it in character?
One of the biggest problems in storytelling is blurring the line between writer and character. It happens often and even to the most experienced writers. It can become a huge issue with audiences if they attach themselves to a character and understand the character’s viewpoints and morals and then the character makes a choice that goes against that.
If this problem happens, it usually means that the character is not yet fully developed in the writer’s mind. This has been happening to me a lot with my senior project. I have these characters, but I have not created a complete image of them in my mind. To remedy this, I wrote about their childhood and experiences in a freewriting document and found photos of actors I had seen that worked well with the character. By choosing these actors, I have also given my characters a voice and a physical appearance to help visualize their actions.
This isn’t enough. It helps to make sure your characters are also separate in ideals and personalities. If characters are blending together so much that you’re writing dialogue that could be said by several characters, then you should consider adding more unique qualities and adjust parts of their personalities to create characters that balance the dialogue. A good exercise I was taught was to cover up who is speaking dialogue in a scene. If you think a line could be said by multiple characters, then that character may need a voice or personality adjustment. It’s usually a minor thing, but it can radically change how your characters interact and add more interesting variety to the story.
During drafts, it would be a good idea to have someone else with no knowledge of the concept or characters, to read through your script. From them, you can ask if something felt wrong or they can point out to you moments where a character did something that didn’t feel right. You may not agree with your reader’s analysis, but they are reacting in a similar way the audience might.
Is it their only choice?
This question is easiest to answer when you have a good grasp of your character. When it comes to the choices that they make, it’s very easy to make the character follow the path that continues the story, but sometimes there are other ways, perhaps easier ways out of the situation.
I like to think of it this way: in video games, there are beta testers. A basic definition of what they do is they go through games and try everything a player would try and see if the game continues to work. They try to take different paths to the end, trying different things that affect the storyline in different ways.
Approaching your script like a beta tester can be incredibly beneficial. Whenever you get to a character choice, think of all the options your character would take. Explain with character background evidence which options are viable – if any. From there you can see which route your character would take. Does this match up with your storyline? If not, could it? Staying true to the character is important and if you have to change a few things about your character or the story influencing the character to make sure it happens, then that has to be done. If you force your character to make a harder choice even though they have the capability of taking an easier route, it makes the audience question if they really know this character and can harm their connection with them.
This is a very delicate procedure. To make sure your character takes the choice the leads the story, you can’t just force an immediate change on the character. It has to be something ingrained in their personality and characteristics. Sudden changes or just out-of-the-blue out-of-character decisions are what make stories feel shallow. As Lajos Egri points out, first and foremost in a story is the premise and then the characters. Action follows after those two are well established. If you need more help developing your character, take a look at our article on Building Characters with Lajos Egri.
Of course, character choices are among many different important aspects of storytelling. If you have any other ideas about the influence of character choice or think I may have missed something, let us know in the comments!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.