Creating Characters that Attract A-List Talent

Whether we as writers like it or not, A-Lister actors are the key to getting our screenplays produced or our series on the air. And guess what attracts most A-Listers the most – right, we’re talking big bucks about great characters:

Pen Densham (born 14 October 1947, Ruislip, Middlesex, United Kingdom) is a British-Canadian-American film and television writer, producer, director and author, known for writing and producing films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves[2] and television revivals of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, as well as writing, producing and directing MGM's Moll Flanders, starring Morgan Freeman and Robin Wright.

Pen Densham is a British-Canadian-American film and television writer, producer, director and author, known for writing and producing films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and television revivals of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.

by Pen Densham

I am convinced that actors with creative intelligence want to play roles that challenge and refresh their artistic instincts. Movies that get noted for Oscar consideration. When stars commit to a movie in Hollywood, it is frequently the reason the film will get financed. No imaginative person wants to do the same thing over and over. Yet studios offer stars the same type of role over and over. The assumption is that this is the persona the actor wants to play or this is the persona that the studio thinks will sell.

But the big secret is: The studios are competing against each other for these artists. Stars are one of the main, shiny baits for the audience from which the studios hope to profit. And to attract those stars “screenplays” are the lure the studios need: great stories with great roles. Charlize Theron won for the role of a dynamic and demented female killer in Monster. Sean Penn won for his deep and charismatic portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual politician in America. Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking.

So how do we, as writers, create complex characters that will attract talented performers? Personalities whose emotional palettes are less obvious, more engaging, or totally tantalizing chances for stars to refresh their instincts and create a unique human portrait?

Humans come with such a vast lexicon of traits there is virtually no wrong way to portray our species. But, when we start to sketch out our protagonists and antagonists, we might see them as types before we see them as people. This often happens to me, so to break the mold I struggle to free my thinking and deepen my originality and authenticity.

I ask myself questions. Who would be the least obvious, most unusual character to take on this challenge? What would be the weirdest world to place my favorite character types in, thus making their behavior fresh? What eccentricity, or handicap, or permutations of personality would make a dull person fascinating?

I use bi-association, taking two or more contradictory human types and forcing them together: A prostitute must become a detective. A fireman decides to sing opera. A teacher must become a knight. A dog transfers into a mans body. A nun has a sex change. Crashing types together can create weird or wonderful discoveries.

I have made lists of examples of human attributes and emotions and tried to divine ideas by running these options through my mind: employed/loafer; introvert/extrovert; gay/straight; bigot/saint.

I will confess to spending hours just trolling through the Internet and looking up odd things like “the worst human beings in the world” or “ten things I love about my friends.” I also like to read psychologists’ case studies. They are remarkable documents of human experience, and can be filled with day-to-day anecdotes from real people that can open our own minds to new possibilities that will color or shape a character type into someone surprising and real….

Read it all at SSN Insider

Buy Pen’s book on screenwriting