Reader Question: “What if people don’t ‘get’ my characters?”


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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

Nailing character work in a screenplay can feel like a nebulous target. Structure and plotting tend to be more concrete and easier to grasp. (Even if, let’s be honest, they’re still tough to master).

But bringing characters alive on the page? Where do you even start?

Last week I talked about one trick that may help you create memorable characters. This week I’d like to continue the character discussion with a question that a reader wrote in to ask:

“People say they don’t ‘get’ my characters. What the f#*% does that mean?”

Maybe you’ve felt this frustration too?

Creating memorable characters is great, of course. But there’s a baseline level of character work built into the foundation of that skill that we shouldn’t overlook. That’s the ability to write compelling, realistic characters in the first place. Screenplay characters that are distinct enough to be able to get a handle on quickly, yet interesting enough to capture our attention.

What’s not to get?

So what causes a reader to feel like they just don’t ‘get’ a character?

Sometimes the note behind the note here is about character logic. Meaning, the character seems to be taking actions that don’t ring true or that don’t make sense to the reader. For example, if there’s a mismatch between the character’s actions and who we’ve been told the character is supposed to be.

Other times the note is about the reader feeling unsure what they’re supposed to ‘get’ about the character at all. Meaning, they’re confused about what certain characterization or behavior is meant to convey. Who the character is at all is in question.

There’s overlap here, of course. And usually what it comes down to is consistency. Or lack of it, really.

For characters, consistency is key

When we meet a new person in real life, there’s a “consistent self” that we experience. We get a sense of the core of their personality. Who they are in broad strokes. And then as we continue to encounter the person, we observe their behavior, picking up on patterns that reinforce and broaden or deepen our understanding of them.

And so it is with characters.

A pattern of behavior helps us get a handle on how to categorize them (he’s a snob… she’s a bully… he’s timid… she’s generous…) and understand how they’re going to interact in the world. This helps us feel like we “get” them.

Established in the character’s introduction and then reinforced consistently, pattern creates a sense of understanding.

This is helpful to readers, who are trying to quickly digest the story you’re telling. A recognizable pattern gives us a shorthand to grasp who the characters are – and what we need to know about them.

Because – ideally – the writer has deliberately chosen the pattern to convey something important about the character that’s specifically relevant to the story at hand.

Pattern is personality

If your readers tell you that they don’t have a clear idea of who your character is, consider how consistently the character is showing up.

To get the character’s personality across within the screenplay, you have to establish their key traits consistently in the story.

Think of it like building a case for the audience. You’re leading them to draw a particular conclusion. One piece of evidence won’t cut it – that could be a fluke. You need to provide corroborating evidence if you want to get the audience to the desired conclusion quickly and confidently.

So give your character multiple moments that convey who they are, e.g. what you want us to know about them.

Remember, you’re trying to establish a pattern. Early in your screenplay, aim to include at least three or four such moments that work together to create the character’s pattern of personality.

And if you can’t think of enough moments that convey who the character is in a consistent way? It’s very likely that you don’t know either who your character is or what you’re trying to convey about them.

Use contradiction deliberately, too

If you’ve successfully established a pattern of behavior over several moments, the reader or audience will anticipate that behavior in future scenes.

That anticipation allows you to then subvert the pattern with contradiction.

But, wait – I thought consistency was key?!

We know that real people – and realistic characters – are complex. While people generally behave in ways that are consistent with their core personality traits, they occasionally act in ways that might contradict that “consistent self” – especially when it’s advantageous in some way.

For example, you might have a character who generally keeps to themselves, doesn’t engage with others, etc. And this might be their persistent pattern of behavior. It’s who we understand them to be.

But if this character displays assertive, confrontational behavior when under extreme pressure, and does so consistently in those situations, then that contradiction becomes something we understand as an aspect of the character’s nature. It’s contradictory but not random, and it creates the kind of fascinating complexity that engages readers.

However… those contradictions must be deliberately planned. Characters who look like random collections of traits, with no rhyme or reason to them, are more likely to turn readers (and audiences) off.

Contradiction done well is interesting. Confusion is off-putting. The contradictions have to ultimately make more sense, rather than less.

Consistency helps us “get” the character in one way. And seeing when or what it takes for a character to contradict their own strategy, to change their behavior, helps us “get” them even more fully.

How do we know who your character is?

You’ve probably heard that screenplays distill real life into its most entertaining moments, or something similar. And you know that applies to movie dialogue, too. But think about how we can extend that to character work.

People you meet in real life may not come across quite as clearly and distinctly as movie characters. And yet we do still draw conclusions about them that let us anticipate how they’ll act and react. We look for the patterns and form impressions based on the “evidence.”

Creating compelling, realistic screenplay characters follows the same logic – there’s just more signal than noise in our fictional people.

My challenge to you this week:

Take the first act of your screenplay (or any screenplay you want to use for this exercise). Look at the first three scenes the protagonist appears in, and identify what character traits are being expressed.Is there a consistent pattern?

  • Is/are the trait(s) being expressed the most important or valuable to the story?
  • Could the pattern be expressed more clearly with different scenes or showcase moments?
  • Could there be a more useful or relevant pattern to establish for this character?

As always, let me know what you discover! And keep the questions coming, whether they’re about character, structure, dialogue, theme – or any other craft or process topic you’re wondering about.


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.