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One of my favorite character intros -- Agent Crawford in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Ted Talley, based on a novel by Thomas Harris.


One of my favorite characters of all time is Graham Dalton, from Sex, Lies and Videotape. I wrote a blurb about the character that Mystery Man used in a discussion about character:

I pulled the script up again this morning to see exactly how he's introduced. Here's one bit from the first ten pages:

"Graham smiles. He has an unusual face, a face that fluctuates between remarkably handsome and just plain strange."

Handsome, but disturbed. The combination sounds contradictory, so it immediately pulls us in.

Another character that I find authentic and engaging is Dex, the protagonist of the Tao of Steve. The formerly dashing lothario who is now fat, but still living by (and winning women with) his collegiate Steve McQueen philosophy. I don't have the script, so I don't know how the screenwriters introduce him in text, but I imagine it was pretty good as they hooked Donal Logue. Certainly he could have made more money elsewhere.

E.C. Henry

Great thought proving post, Billy.

I think their is differing degrees of authenticity thoughout the script to film process. There's the author's version of authenticity. The reader's version of authenticity. The director's version of authenticity, and the actor's version of authenticity.

For me, as a writer, authenticity
comes through writing multiple drafts and taking the time to "discover" each character. Authenticity comes AFTER you know the basic series of events in a story. Notes and character profliling help me make characters stand out, and become something real. You can't hurry character deveopement. They only mature and develop, as you spend more and more time agoninzing with them. Plot, makes notes, profile, then polish to express in poetic way.

The goal in creating any character is to be able to spark the imagination of the reader, so that they in turn start to play with the characters you've created and see them as living, viable enties in their own mind. At which point the writer may discover these characters have been slightly altered, now authentic creations in the mind of someone else.

Key point: authenticity sparks the imagination of its reader. Non-authentic characters tend to bore the reader.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA


You should teach a whole seminar on this one subject...

I recently watched "Sherrybaby", and what struck me was a scene where Sherry offers her sister-in-law a cigarette, even though she's upset at her for trying to usurp her daughter's love. The scene doesn't go anywhere or change the course of things, but you get a little glimpse into the underlying relationship and Sherry's capacity to forgive people. There are also a number of creepy scenes where Sherry acts like a child in the presence of her father that I thought were great and which I had seen before in novels but had never before seen in films.

There are a bunch of great scenes in "Hysterical Blindness" that save the characters from cliche and make them and their friendship seem very real. I felt every ounce of Uma Thurman's pain even as she annoyed the hell out of me and made me wince.

I'd really like to read both of those scripts to see how they play out on paper.

And of course the classic (and one of my favorites), "The Talented Mr. Ripley", which takes a total heartless sociopath from the novel and adapts him into a fully fleshed-out and sympathetic antihero. The sympathy (poor vs. rich, sincere vs. shallow) is created for him almost immediately, and the stakes keep getting higher the more sharply the social class lines are drawn. He's manipulative and lying from start to finish, yet I want him to prevail, in part because he wears corduroy in summer and never learned how to sail or ski.


What you're talking about is empathetic contradictions. What do I mean by that? Contradictions in your character that everyone understands. For instance, Tony Soprano is evi, but he's also a man who loves his family deeply. He's also neurotic, confused and paranoid. Aren't we all empathetic to these emotions?

For instance in Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat", he talks about how a Al Pacino's character in "Sea of Love", a detective, allows a guy who has a warrant outstanding and is getting ready to get nabbed via a "free baseball tickets" scam go because the guy brought his kid with him. Plenty of contradiction there... he's a cop who intentionally lets a wanted man walk. Because (and here's where the audience invests in the character) he's not willing to have the kid witness his father's arrest. The audience likes him for this and we can all empathize with doing something "wrong" in order to protect an innocent.

So, when you are "discovering" your character, you should try to see what traits in them war with each other.

Btw, Billy, read MM's review of your work and man, that's some (the samples) sweet visual writing!

Mystery Man

Hey guys,

Billy's too modest to mention this, but I wrote a review of one of his scripts called "The Trouble With My Sister."

Yeah, he's quite good. Duh.



Ann Wesley Hardin

For me it's in the details that reveal the True Self, away from the words:

Michael Corleone's steady hands lighting a match, even though he thinks he's not a mobster. We find out, when he does, that he is.

Owen Wilson's self-assured, yet non-judgemental "perfect ex" in Meet the Parents. The viewer expects him to be a dick. But he's not.

Emma Thompson imagining what it would be like to jump off a building and NOT being able to imagine anyone else not imagining it in Stranger Than Fiction. I can so relate to that.

The museum curator in A Night At The Museum and how he couldn't finish his thoughts.

These are some of the quirks that make a character real and memorable to me. I bow down to their simple brilliance. Characters don't have to be over-the-top-eccentric. Their authenticity can come from these unique subleties. I love that. And I always remember it.

I. M. Anonymous

I think that part of what makes a character relatable for me comes not...

Wait, let me give an an example...

Recently I had an opprtunity to read one of the early drafts of Saving Private Ryan. In that first draft the character of Capt John Miller is sort of flippant (maybe it's because he's a Medal of Honor recipient), arrogant sort of guy (or at least that's how I read him) and less the reticent introspective leader he is in the final product.

Maybe it's because in real life arrogance gets you killed (yeah, yeah I know Miller dies in the end, but it's got nothing to do with arrogance) that I found that initial character of Miller as not being real. Reading him I thought the character (in that first draft) felt like a "movie" character...

Finding a character's "realness" is a gut reaction...I think we [in reading or watching a movie] re-act instinctively to the character. we either see ourselves (a hightened, enhanced version to be sure) in the charaxcter or the person we hope to be in a particular ituation.

In a interesting twist, I was reading the times this Sunday and there was an article referencing the movement toward "regular" people (using Raine Wilson as one example) in rom-coms as leading characters...

It'll be an interesting trend to watch should it catch on.


A great example of an authentic character is Harry Caul in The Conversation. That film is character, character, character. There are so many great little moments that give you an insight into who this guy really is but there is one that always stood out in my mind; the simple relationship that he has with Teri Garr's character, Amy. Caul is an emotional basket case and obsessed with his work as the nation's top surveillance expert. You can see how Harry is a social cripple because he chooses to be with Amy, who is more socially inept than he is, for companionship. Ironically, his suppressed need for human contact actually costs Harry later in the film.

Great post and great name too.


Interesting that you chose a quote on authenticity from Laura Dern. I cannot think of an actor, male or female, who comes even remotely as close to absolute authenticity as does Laura Dern. Every role. Every moment. Why on God's green earth does this woman not work more???

Dante Kleinberg

I think are some practical issues with complicated "authentic" characters in spec scripts.

One is that most guides to specs say not to overdescribe any characters because it limits casting -- and especially don't describe them physically in any negative terms.

Another is that, in a published novel or produced movie, sometimes a person will ask themselves "Why did this person do this? It doesn't make sense?" then they'll think it over, and realize some greater depth in the character. While in a spec from an unproven writer, you just say "This character makes no sense. Make them clearer."


I always hate reading a script that describes a protagonist as "attractive." Since when are Hollywood leads not attractive? And that usually comes from male writers describing female roles.


It seems to me it's mostly when characters have integrity with the story. Otherwise, if they're types or cookie-cutter representations or poorly executed rehashes, the characters are authentically two-dimensional but that's still flat.

What kind of candy bar do I get for naming the example?!?


you know what helps with authentic characters?

Following people around. I no longer walk the new york streets with my iPod on...all I do is walk behind people and listen to their conversations.

It's great.

...the only problem is, sometimes I get too close, and people think I'm stalking them.

...which I kinda am. But nicely.


Sam, you get the bar! Send your address via my e-mail.

Christina: Graham is great! Re: Donal, I don't think he was that big a name yet at the time; wasn't it TAO that really made him well-known?

EC: "The goal in creating any character is to be able to spark the imagination of the reader, so that they in turn start to play with the characters you've created and see them as living, viable enties in their own mind."
Well put.

Kristen: I loved HYSTERICAL for just those reasons -- am looking forward to seeing SHERRY on DVD.

WriterGurl: Love the phrase (and concept) of "sympathetic contradictions." I'll start using it when I teach and I'll credit you. (Glad you enjoyed the TROUBLE excerpts.)

MM: Stop making me blush, dude.

Ann: Great examples. I love it when one image can do the trick.

I.M.: Absolutely... I'll have to look for the Raine article; was it this past Sunday NY Times? (I still haven't gotten through it)

Welcome, William: Mr. Caul is one of the all-time greats (as is your name).

Mark: Couldn't agree more. I think she's picky with her parts... and hence the admirable filmography.

Dante: I'd never recommend "over-describing." And the confusion re: motivation you speak of doesn't come up much when a character is realized with great skill.

RB: So sad, so true.

Sam: Name your brand (accessible in America, I hope).

Jess: I'm sure you're a very good stalker. And eavesdropping is a favorite hobby for any good writer (you've checked out "Overheard in NYC," right? LOL.)

Laura Reyna

This is such an interesting & complex subject.

To me, "authentic" means this character gives off the feeling of being an actual, real person. Someone you know or could meet on street, or at work, or thru friends, or whatever.

And with all that comes real life experiences, motivations & relatable emotions.

These so-called authentic characters have an authentic emotional life.

This is why i don't like the idea of using an 'archetype' as the basis in building a character. I would rather start off thinking the char is a REAL, specific person, with a real life, real friends and family, a job, etc...

To start out with an archetype that fills some kind of dramatic template would make it more likely you'd end up with something less believeable. A movie char as opposed to a real person.

Who's that famous author that had that famous quote about starting with types? I can't remember the quote right now. But what i think he was talkng about was authenticity.

Why did audiences (including me) & critics respond to the new James Bond, as portrayed by Daniel Craig? Because he seemed more authentic.

That's my 2 cents, anyway...

Laura Reyna

Here's the quote:

"Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created - nothing."

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just to save someone the trouble of looking it up. :-)

Christian Howell

Authenticity. I've been thinking about this for awhile. My opinion is that there is more than one way to intro a character.

In most cases, I do try to emphasize a visual trait like "a smile that melts hearts."

Or "chaste yet daring in mini-skirt and halter top, long legs totally covered by white leggings."

For antags I usually describe personality, like "cocky, overbearing."

But then that's only going to cover major characters as most characters only need a name or a title "COP #1," or "HUNKY FRAT BOY."

Character lives in dialogue, but also in their mannerisms, the people who bring out the best and worst in them and of course how they react to action.

And then the way you handle character in a drama will have slight differences from a thriller.

More of my images in a drama are close to the protag, a picture of a dead parent, collectibles, neatness.

But in a thriller the images are external, like eerie lights, rising smoke, sirens and the ubiquitous yet sometimes overused helicopter lights.

I also like to use light arguments to reveal character. I think that is the whole point of a man relationship character; to learn how the protag thinks. Setting up slight disagreements works great for me.

Keep writing as writing is the revealing of the soul.


Laura: That all makes sense to me (the "archetype" approach has led to a lot of misconceived, cookie-cutter characterization work). And thanks for the Fitzgerald quote!

Christian: I agree; it's not so much the physical description as the metaphysical POV a writer has that reveals character...

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