When You Need to Build a Character, Where Do You Start?


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

Real people are complex and nuanced, and you want your story characters to mirror that. But how do you create whole people out of thin air?

This week I was asked about practical ways of building characters, and I shared several methods writers I’ve worked with have tried. But there are a million different ways to approach character creation, and what works for one writer may not work for another.

With all those options, where do you start?

What’s important, what to ignore, and where to start

From assembling long character biographies to intuitively channeling the character in free-writing sessions to applying tools like the Enneagram or MBTI… there are some real rabbit holes to go down if you’re so inclined. Some writers get overwhelmed and go the other direction, just winging it as they write, with no real parameters set for each character.

However you approach it, ideally you know your characters well enough to write them. You probably want some idea of how they’re going to show up on the page, how they’re going to behave and react to things. So that’s where I like to start.

Over the many years I’ve spent studying movies and reading and writing screenplays, I’ve realized that there are a few key things that do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the audience’s understanding of a character. Two in particular that I think may help if you’re feeling stumped.

Two things that make the most impact

When you’re reading a script or watching a movie, there are a few puzzle pieces your brain seeks out to form an understanding of any important character. The two that do most of the heavy lifting, especially early in the script, are the Defining Characteristic and Inner Drive.

Together these two aspects of a character give us a sense of who they are, what they want in a big picture sense, and how they behave and interact with the world around them.

And these two elements give you more than your money’s worth because of the way they relate to other aspects of the story, too.

Defining Characteristic (how do they show up)

You’ve probably heard this referred to as a character’s flaw or misbehavior. “Defining characteristic” is just another way to label basically the same thing. It’s a behavior or strategy that’s not serving the character as well as they think.

A defining characteristic will help you create a vivid, distinct character in your screenplay because it defines the character for the audience. (It’s right there in the name.)

A defining characteristic informs how the character shows up in scenes, treats other characters, and generally behaves from moment to moment. Because of that consistency, it gives the audience a solid grasp on the character and a quick way to “get” who they are.


  • Erin Brockovich is defensive.
  • Dr. Gregory House is caustic.
  • Elle Woods is ditzy.

Defining characteristics don’t have to be over-the-top to be effective. An active trait makes it easier to write, but ultimately consistency is the real key.

Inner Drive (what do they desire)

The Inner Drive is the internal motivation or desire that is with the character from page 1 of the script. It’s their big-picture want. It’s often caused by some defining moment or experience in the past, but it doesn’t have to be a childhood trauma. The cause could be recent, or even ongoing.

The Inner Drive is the deeper need, what the character wants, and the Defining Characteristic is their behavior strategy, or how we see them go about getting it.


  • Erin Brockovich wants to be valued. She gets defensive when she feels she’s not, and challenges anyone she feels demeans or diminishes her.
  • Dr. House wants to keep people at a distance so they can’t hurt him. His caustic behavior is a means of achieving that.
  • Elle Woods wants the privileged, easy life she was born to expect. To get it, she doesn’t have to try very hard — just remain the ditzy, unchallenging sorority girl that she is.

Connections to other elements of the story

As mentioned above, the Defining Characteristic is the behavior strategy the character uses to get or achieve the Inner Drive. It’s a strategy the character thinks will get them what they want (though they’re usually misguided in some way). That connection can apply to any character.

But when we look at the Inner Drive and Defining Characteristic of the protagonist specifically, there are a few other interesting connections we can see.

  • The Inner Drive is connected to the story stakesThe Inner Drive is usually a more general or big-picture version of what will specifically be at stake once the story goal is formed. In that way, the Inner Drive contributes to really strong story stakes because we see this desire building from the beginning of the script. That lays a lot of “motivation foundation.”
  • The character arc connection. When you look at the protagonist’s character arc, it’s often either the Inner Drive or the Defining Characteristic that ultimately changes to indicate their transformed state by the end of the movie. Which makes sense, since these two elements are key to establishing the character at the beginning of the story, before they’ve gone through the transformative experience.

Start here for effective character building

Think of it like the 80/20 rule of character creation: the Inner Drive and Defining Characteristic are the 20% that do 80% of the work. These are the two elements you can start with to build characters that your audience can easily get ahold of. And since these two elements share a lot of connective tissue, they offer even more ways to “do the math” when you’re building your story.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.