The Differences Between Developing Characters in Screenplays and Novels
Rebecca Williams Spindler is a screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, and instructor of Young Adult fiction at University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. Her short screenplay Wrong Number Right Day won First Place in the Project Famous Screenplay Competition and is being produced by Project Famous Films. She’s had several feature and short screenplays rank in national and international competitions including Nashville Film Festival, Buffalo/Niagara Film Festival, Kansas City Women in Film & Television and ScreenCraft Fellowship.
When creating a screenplay or manuscript, the mainstay of any story is character. Who are they and why do they matter? And as a reader or viewer, why should we care about them?
We've previously covered the Five Major Differences Between Writing Novels and Screenplays, but what about the differences between developing characters for either medium? We'll explore those differences — as well as the similarities — but first you have to remember to ask yourself one question when developing any character in any type of story: Will they take the B.A.I.T?
The manner in which a character behaves can vary greatly from screenplay to novel. How your character acts out their behavior on the pages of a screenplay needs to be precise and intentional. You only have 100 or so pages to get your story across to your audience so you better be efficient in the portrayal of your character’s behavior.
In a novel — or novella or short story — you may write several chapters establishing the reasoning behind the behavior of your character. Perhaps incorporate lengthy backstories — describe their childhood for instance — as explanation of behavior.
Does your character battle with inner demons, worldly foes, office enemies? Can your character win this battle by the end of page 108? If so, you’ve got yourself a screenplay.
If you envision your character winning the war at the end of book three, well, get working on that series of novels!
How your character views the world impacts their behavior and ultimately their actions and how they acclimate to the world they live in. Attitude is also an excellent attribute of dialogue.
The significance of dialogue in a screenplay is evident. The cadence on the page goes something like this: dialogue, action, reaction — repeat. How your character says or does something is just as important as what they say or do.
Can you convey a distinct attitude of your character from their initial introduction and can you establish why they have this type of attitude? If you can provide this information right at the intro of your character, in just a line or two of action and/or dialogue, then you can create a screenplay. But if you need more pages of description to account for their attitude, you’re better off putting it in a novel.
Note: Attitude is a great place to put in an unexpected twist. For instance, think of how different The Breakfast Club would’ve been if Anthony Michael Hall’s nerdy character had the street edgy attitude of Judd Nelson’s character and vice versa.
With every great story, a character has a goal and what drives the story is how the character takes initiative toward that goal. The aim and obstacles of achieving said goal differ significantly if you write a screenplay versus a novel.
In a screenplay, the initiative should surface within the first 20 pages of your script and how your character reacts to the initiative gives your story direction. This is commonly referred to as the inciting incident. In conjunction with the initiative, there’s usually a “ticking clock” or set deadline in a screenplay. The character needs to achieve X before Y occurs.
In a novel, the initiative can surface within the first chapter, but typically, there’s only a hint of it. In a book, there’s more of an in depth process of discovering the character’s full initiative as it enfolds over chapters. Your goal, as a writer, is to keep a reader/viewer engaged throughout the entire story. Pacing is key, but equally so is how you build and break your character as he/she ventures to achieve the initiative set forth.
A character’s quest for truth is a recurring theme in many stories whether written in screenplays or novels. Your character doesn’t need to wear a cape and mask. They could be seeking answers to unasked questions in regards to their own true identity.
In seeking the truth, this is one of the rare crossover occurrences where a character can appear in more than one screenplay or novel. For instance, if your character has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and demonstrates a limitless ambition for truth — and if you can condense your story into 40-60 episodic pages — you have the makings of a television show. Think any show generated by Shonda Rhimes and ShondaLand Productions. Or perhaps you have a feature film franchise.
And keep in mind that in this day and age, mediums often are one in the same of a massive franchise. While establishing powerful and engaging groundwork in a novel for your character’s quest for the truth, this can also lead to sequels and creating a franchise. Think any books written by JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At the heart of every story lives a character. One in which you can set up behaviors, create attitude, drive initiatives and launch him/her into a journey for the truth. It’s up to you to decide if your character is better housed within the pages of a screenplay or novel. Either way, invite your reader into your story and give them the privilege of getting to know your character.