Five Signs Your Character is Stuck in Arrested Development

1) Your character questions nothing.

I can’t tell you the number of screenplays I’ve seen where some random stranger tells a protagonist, “Go the old abandoned mill. There is a person there with a message for you” and the protagonist just goes, “Okay.” If someone told you the same thing, what would be the first thing out of your mouth? Would it be “Okay”? Or don’t you think you’d have a few questions before you went somewhere you were unfamiliar with to speak to someone you didn’t know about a message you know nothing about? An ill-formed character doesn’t question anything in the plot because the character is only obeying what the plot tells him to do. In other words, he’s not behaving like you or I would in the situation. Which also leads us to…

2) Your character doesn’t behave according to everyday, commonsense logic.

If someone got into a car chase with you, ran you off the road, pulled a gun and shot out your windshield, what do you think you’d do? Probably call the police, right? So why is your character searching for a safe house and some ammunition? Why hasn’t it crossed your protagonist’s mind to call the police…even if he decides against it for some reason, the thought would at least cross his mind, right? Again, when a character behaves in a way that’s alien to what you would be compelled to do, or at least consider doing, he’s behaving like a character in a plot, not like a person.

3) Your character couldn’t explain himself to a 3-year-old.

3-year-olds are really good at asking one particular question: WHY? You say, “The sky is blue,” and the 3-year old says, “Why?” You say, “it’s time to go to bed,” and the 3-year old says, “Why?” So, if your character says, “I’ve got to get to Jones’s house and speak to his daughter,” would he have an answer if a 3-year-old asks, “Why?” Because the audience is in some way a 3-year-old when it comes to suspension of disbelief. At every turn an audience implicitly—or sometimes explicitly, yelling at the screen—asks Why? of a film and its world, and particularly the actions of its characters. So see that you’re asking the same question of your protagonist’s actions, and make sure that you have an answer for why he or she is doing what he or she is doing, and that the answer isn’t “Because I told him to.”

4) Your character could conceivably give up at any point and just walk away.

There must be motivation, a desire, a need that’s fueling the protagonist’s (and all your characters’) actions. So, what is keeping your protagonist moving along in the story? Why must he keep going? If you can’t answer this, then it’s possible the character could simply get up and walk out of the story. It’s possible your audience might, too.

5) Your character obeys you.

There should come a point in the screenplay where you tell your protagonist to do something, and he or she hesitates or actively resists, and this is good. If your protagonist does everything you ask him to without question, then he doesn’t really have a personality and will of his own…he’s not a person but just a character moving through a plot. Be open to having your characters take on a life of their own, and to surprising you. And when they do so, listen to what they’re trying to tell you.

Now… get your character OUT of arrested development! Look into our Construct Compelling Characters workshop.


These tips came from the workshop

Construct Compelling Characters

In online lectures, supplemental readings, video clips, and written assignments and exercises, we’ll consider how character affects all other aspects of story, including plot, theme, and structure; how to build a protagonist with whom the audience identifies; the necessity of empathy and sympathy in crafting character, and how a character’s own shortcomings allow for these; how to both use and play against character types and tropes; the relationship between character arc and plot arc; and more.

Learn more about Construct Compelling Characters today!.