By: Nick Ruck
Have you ever watched a film and thought, "What an idiot! I would never do that!" or, "Why would they run into danger, that doesn't make any sense!"
Character consistency is one of the most overlooked elements of a screenplay. When it's done right you get memorable classic characters like John McClane from Die Hard or Michael Corleone in The Godfather. When it's done wrong, the film leaves audiences confused and frustrated for neglecting the logic behind the characters’ motives and actions.
It's recognizable when a protagonist suddenly acts against his interest or a side character dies from unexplainable lemming behavior. The origin of this problem often stems from the writer’s oversight to develop characters outside of the script.
It's always obvious when the writer tries to force the characters to do something against their nature only so that the plot can move on. It will be more natural if the character acts or reacts based on their personality even when presented with a roadblock in the storyline.
Don't Make Characters Who Only Die
Horror films are notorious for this flaw as characters are often made to die in some spectacular performance. Character motivation relies on realistic, logical, and relatable decision-making, even in fictional universes.
Audiences place themselves in the scene and when a character acts against their safety or logic, the entire film falls apart.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil and The Cabin in the Woods both satirically point out these flaws in horror movies and the latter does a great job of character consistency. Marty, whose trope is the fool/stoner, is actually intelligent and suspicious of the weird events in the film and keeps his trait to the end.
Note: some small spoilers for Alien Covenant below!
Alien Covenant brought in new characters to the Alien franchise and some viewers are criticizing the film and subpar side character development.
A significant part of the first act focuses on the crew as their characters develop onboard the Covenant. But after they land on a new planet their established personalities start to collapse for the sake of progressing the plot.
The Covenant's new captain, Oram, decides to check out a new mysterious planet although he was first pinned as a stickler for the rules. He even refused to hold a memorial service for the previous and now deceased captain so that the crew would work on repairs to the ship.
Oram's wife, Karen, portrays a calm, logical, and voice of reason character that has to comfort her husband's irrational anger. Later, when a security officer gets sick and starts to bleed, Karen immediately freaks out and runs around calling for help while not actually doing anything.
Of course the rest of the crew have similar token characters. Like that one guy who touches weird alien things even though he was warned a couple times.
The only characters that actually stay consistent are David and Walter because they’re the true protagonists. Both films open and end with them and the plot actually follows their actions and then the consequences that the crews face.
Crafting Well Developed Characters
It's helpful to take time to fill out a questionnaire about the characters, like this one from The Script Lab. Although questionnaires include minor details that won't get included in the script, they're useful to get to know the characters like they're your friends and family.
Some people can't stand writing questionnaires and other good alternatives exist for them as well. A great way to understand your character's core personalities is to write or even think your characters into a mini-scene that tests their reactions in an extreme situation.
Put your characters into a restaurant and suddenly a customer dies in front of them. How does everyone react? Who runs away screaming? Who hides himself under the table and calls the police? Who steps forward to confront the killer? Maybe someone tries to revive the dead character or maybe they're the murderer!
Take a look at the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs. It reveals the personality of each character and the long-term relationships between each other. Looking back from the end of the film, this scene makes sense for every character's action and it all started with a conversation about tipping.
It's hard to keep reminding yourself of character consistency when you're writing, especially when the script is plot driven. But keeping yourself in check will make the difference between the Star Wars prequels (especially episode 2) and Pulp Fiction.