Characters & Characterization

October 10, 2009

These are some of my favorite quotations for fiction writers on creating, developing, and unveiling great story characters. On other topics, see more quotations for writers here.


“Good screenwriting allows the main character to discover what’s going on at the same time as the audience discovers what’s going on. Character and audience are connected by the community of emotion.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“At the end of a movie (or any good narrative) ask yourself, How did the main character change? What did she want or need at first, how did she go about getting it, and what did she finally achieve or discover? What did that character learn? Usually there is an obvious answer that hides some more problematic issues: the action plot may be over, but a new plot is just beginning.”
(Stephen J. Cannell)

A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves conflict. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“It is desirable that all characters, even those only shown briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing.”
(Author and Film director Edward Dmytryk from his book On Screen Directing).

Beware of sympathy between characters. That is the END of “drama.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“A good film is behavior. In the language of screenwriting, action is character. What a person does is what he is. How the characters respond, what they do, what they say, how they act or react in a particular situation are what really define their character.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“What I’ll do is go out in the backyard in the morning, and just sit there and try to open myself up and let the characters come to me; let them talk to me. So much of writing is about getting quiet enough so you can hear your characters talking. Sometimes I feel they choose you because they know you’re listening. You just have to shut up and listen.”
Screenwriter Callie Khoury

“When you have two characters equally sharing the role of protagonist, their combined personalities become a single entity — the yin and yang… two halves that complete each other.” He uses Thelma and Louise as an example of this.
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

Obstacles must confront your hero throughout your screenplay”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“When the screenwriter stares into that 60 page unit of dramatic action that makes up Act II, it’s important to remain focused on the dramatic need of the character. It establishes the foundation of the conflict that pushes the action forward through Act II and will provide a context for the Confrontation.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“Stories are driven by desire; Your hero’s goals and objectives determine the story concept, plot, and structure.”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“In every film that’s worth its salt, there’s the text, and there’s the subtext. And the subtext of this film is alienation. The language and the culture worked against Gene’s character.” John Frankenheimer, Director talking about the lead character in French Connection II played by Gene Hackman)

On Scene Structure

September 25, 2009

I refer to these quotations from my favorite writer quotes collection for inspiration and direction when creating or planning scenes for a screenplay.


“Every scene in a book or script should do two things. First, It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot? Second, the scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships.” (Stephen J. Cannell)

(on creating narrative drive) “The end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“In screenwriting, where you enter the scene becomes important, and the general rule is to enter late and get out early.” (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays). He advises designing the scene so that you “enter at the last possible moment, just before the purpose of the scene is established. Then end the scene literally before it is ended,” so as to create a narrative tension, drawing the viewer into the next scene.

“The opening scenes should create an identification between audience and hero – a sense that they are equals in some ways … by giving heroes universal goals, drives, desires, or needs.” (Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers )

“If you don’t know whether to write a scene or not, write the scene.” (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays , regarding those moments where you are not sure whether to trust that the audience will “get it” or whether you need to come right out and say/show something to make sure they get it)

(On the subject of Narrative Drive) “The end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.”
(British film director Alexander Mackendrick)

“Particularly in a screenplay or teleplay, it is important to write economically. A great scene often accomplishes several things at once, skillfully weaving together elements of plot, character, conflict and foreshadowing. Do it in one scene instead of four. Look for opportunities of compression without overloading. After you write your scene or chapter, go back and ask yourself: What can I cut to make it cleaner and clearer?”
Writer and lecturer Stephen J. Cannell