• James Stranahan

The Importance of Giving Each of Your Characters a Backstory

Writing a good screenplay, one that will hook your audience’s attention from the start and carry it through to the final seconds of the film, is easier said than done. What exactly makes those words on paper translate so well to the big screen? Is it the film’s budget? The quality of the cast? Or, is it something more, that elusive “je nais se quoi” that frustrates scriptwriters the world over? I would argue that it’s the characters themselves that carry the film. Sure, you can put characters in Fiji and surround them with that glorious water and make them sail the high seas, but if they’re boring, your audience will be on their cellphones when the pirates attack.

There has been a lot written on how to craft a good character. All of you know that they need an interesting story and that they need motivation. Have you ever thought, however, about what they did before the movie started?

A Great Character Had a Life Long Before the Film Began.

Let’s consider Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars saga. Now there’s a guy with a past! This guy lost his parents and his sister at birth, got put on a dusty planet named Tatooine, and, by the time the opening credits of Star Wars begin, he’s been farming and basically living a really boring life while watching space battles through his binoculars. He’s also got the Force already strong inside of him, yet all he knows is that he’s got to clean the droids and be home in time for dinner.

This is what I call a strong backstory: George Lucas sat down and created a history for Luke that would drive his story for films to come even though Luke was a bit clueless at times.

This, I think, is where many scriptwriters go wrong: they don’t create a compelling backstory for each of their characters. The result is a lot of flat characters who stumble through the film without any strong reasons for what they do or who they are.

The Backstory Should Be As Developed As You Can Possibly Make It.

Some scriptwriters like to write the names of their characters on notecards and spread them out on a table so that they can view the characters from a distance and think about their relationships to each other. Let’s take Luke again but this time add in Leia. Leia, as you all know, is a princess on Alderaan, and she and Luke don’t have the slightest idea the other exists. Stick those two notecards next to each other, and you won’t see any connection between them. However, let’s go back in time. Luke is an orphan. Leia is an orphan, too. Hmm, there’s a commonality there. Go back even further, and we’ll see George Lucas’ plan: Luke and Leia are actually brother and sister, and they were separated at birth to protect them from their scary dad. Luke and Leia’s immediate backstories appear unrelated, but that changes the further you go back in time.

With these kinds of precise details, George Lucas was able to create a rich history that would be woven into many of the Star Wars films and make it one of the most successful movie series of all time.

What a Well-Written Backstory Will Do for Your Scripts

If you take the time to develop the histories of your characters, you will see them come to life in your writing. You will be working with real people, so to speak, and you’ll be able to give them reasons for everything they do. Your story arc will be richer and more complex, and the world you envision will resonate more strongly with your audience.

It may take some time to put together a backstory for all of the characters in your script, but done well, it is time well-invested. It will pay back in a plot that moves along at a great speed and that captivates the audience: the Holy Grail for all scriptwriters.

Happy writing!

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