Screenwriting Tips for Character Development: the Stranger

A useful exercise for conceiving characters for a screenplay is to create one that is completely alien to you; that is, one that is not based on yourself, not based on anyone you know or familiar ground. In this way, the character is entirely fictional, a stranger.

Develop a Character for a Play

Let’s imagine that the screenwriter is a white, thirty-something woman with children who works part time in an office and lives close to her parents. This writer may create the following fictional character:

Ashley is half-Romanian half-English. He suspects his father isn’t his natural father. Ashley is in his forties and works in St Pancras Station. He used to live in a small village in Yorkshire but moved to London in his teens. Ashley loves cricket but had to end his semi-professional career due to a hand injury He admires a female commuter from afar but hasn’t spoken to her yet. Ashley lives above a shop in London. He longs to move by the sea but has never been able to save enough money. He has stolen a small artifact from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Character Creation Skills

This character has nothing in common with its creator. Now that you have thought up a basic profile of your character, you may conceive meaningful questions in order to establish which direction you want to go. This will help with plot development and cutting the deadwood. Use my character questionnaire  and refer to my article on characters’ ego states as aids (both links will take you to my novel writing site). To give you an idea of the sort of questions to answer, refer to the following list for my character:

  • Why did Ashley move to Yorkshire?
  • Why does he suspect his father isn’t his real father?
  • Does he still have a family in his hometown?
  • What is the name of the village where he came from?
  • Where in Romania did his ancestors come from?
  • How did he injure his hand? Was this the reason he gave up cricket, and if not, what was the reason?
  • What is preventing Ashley from speaking to the female commuter?
  • What is her name, what does she look like?
  • Why is Ashley working on the railways? What does he do there? Does he like his job? Which line is he working on?
  • Why is Ashley always short of money?
  • How did he manage to steal the artifact? Why did he steal it? Where is the artifact now? What is the artifact?
  • And so forth.


Plot Development Possibilities
Think about aspects of Ashley life that might be worth development. Perhaps he moved from Yorkshire to run away from something. Does it have something to do with his real lineage? Ashley’s theft might also yield an interesting subplot. Perhaps there is a link between the artifact and the reason he ran away from Yorkshire. What does Ashley intend to do with the artifact?
Cutting from the Screenplay

Equally important are the parts to abandon. Perhaps the reader does not need to know that Ashley used to play cricket or that he wants to move by the sea. Will the female commuter impact upon the plot in any way? Beware of cherished elements that do not serve the story. In screenwriting terms, this is known as ‘killing your babies.’ Perhaps the female commuter needs to be cut from the screenplay, as well as the details of his job.

How to Research for Stories

With the parts you want to preserve, some research will be needed. Your character is after all totally alien to you, and therefore aspects of his/her life will be unfamiliar. In my character, I would have to find out about the security system of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Also, details of real life thefts in the past. What was stolen? What about the black market? I would have to source past stories about such events. Some knowledge of Romania will also be needed. What is it like to live in a small Romanian community, such as one Ashley came from?

Plot and Character Development

Already a story idea is manifesting itself from possibilities. These might be that Ashley ran away from home because he thinks his gambling violent uncle is really his father. He might have hurt his hand after getting into a fight with him. Ashley might have stolen the artifact, not for money, but because he craves something precious and rare in a life he considers disagreeable. Perhaps the artifact bears some relation to where he really came from, a small town in Romania. The story might lead him into finding out the truth about his past. The possibilities are endless.

Creating an Alien Character

Dreaming up a character that is based on yourself or someone you know is easier than dreaming up a person who is totally alien. In this instance, the screenwriter has created a stranger that bears no relation to its creator. Ashley’s story requires research into aspects unfamiliar. This will challenge the writer into experimentation and venturing into places not previously considered. Pushing the boundaries outwards is the key to screenwriting development.
Articles on Character development

Image credits: Morning rush hour at St Pancras: passengers just arrived from Dover 18.4.2012. Mattbuck (Wikimedia Commons)