Reader Question: How do I fix a character after the screenplay is done?


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.

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

A consulting client wrote in to ask about some feedback he’d recently received from a director who had read this client’s script. The director mentioned that the protagonist character could use some additional development to make him, as the writer puts it, “more interesting and compelling and perhaps more likeable.” And, in particular, to make the protagonist role more appealing to actors who would be reading the script.

So the writer’s question, as he posed it to me: “How do I fix a character without disrupting the plot that’s already been constructed?

It’s a great question, and one you might have had to deal with too. If we look at the problem logically, I think it breaks down the way so many of our other screenwriting tasks do:

  1. Identify what you’re trying to achieve.
  2. Then explore the best way to achieve it.

It’s helpful to think about it as a two-step process to make sure the solution is actually targeting the problem. Sometimes writers don’t really examine the problem before trying to solve it, and then their efforts may not be as effective as they hope, or may even totally miss the mark.

So first let’s look at what makes a character compelling to an audience and appealing to an actor – there’s definite overlap there. And then, how do you incorporate that into the script?

What makes a character compelling?

Whether you’re thinking about making your character compelling for your script’s reading audience, the audience who will ultimately see your movie, or the actors you hope to bring on to your project in the meantime, there are a few key areas to look to:

  1. Character introduction
  2. Character arc
  3. Characterization & action (what do they get to do)

We won’t tackle these areas comprehensively today, but I will try to give you some points to think about and begin your own exploration.

When we start reading a script or watching a movie, one of the first things we do is try to orient ourselves by identifying who we’re meant to ride through the story with.

The protagonist is usually who you’re doing your ridealong with so we want a compelling protagonist to get us into the car and make us want to go for that ride. But a lot of writers struggle with creating characters that readers (or audiences) want to live vicariously through. Characters we’re eager to spend time with.

Contrary to a lot of boilerplate advice out there, that doesn’t mean your characters have to be “likeable.” But they do have to engage us somehow.

Two parts of a compelling character introduction

Character development over the course of the entire script is important, of course. But the introduction of a character carries a little extra power. (And with great power comes great responsibility.)

There are two things you can do right away to hook the reader’s attention and prime us to engage with the character for the rest of the story:

  1. Give the character an introduction that gets us on their side right away. There are many strategies you can use, including the strategies I discuss here: writing compelling characters, and character intros that make readers fall in love.
  2. Show us what they care about. That initial spark only lasts so long, so it’s important to follow it up fairly quickly with the next layer. Something a little more substantial, to engage us on a deeper level. Often, that’s showing us what’s at stake for the character and why that matters to them. What a character cares about reveals a lot about who they are, and how they go about trying to get, service, or protect what matters to them does as well.

Grab our attention, but make sure to hold on

An audience will also be compelled to pay attention to a character who has a transformative experience. Our brains are wired to pay attention to change. So when we see a character changing, our brains sit up and take notice and seek to understand how and why it’s happening.

And the net effect of an organic character arc is to impart meaning to the audience, which can make the script resonate with us long after we’ve read the last page.

A solid character arc is also a factor in making a role appealing to an actor. What a character goes through and how they are affected — how change manifests — provides opportunities for an actor to bring a role to life. No actor wants to play the same emotional beat over and over without variety. What’s the fun and challenge in that?

Which brings us to the last couple of areas that are useful to include in this discussion: characterization and action.

Because what we’re really getting at here is what does a character do and what do they get to do, how do they show up in scenes, what makes them unique and distinctive?

If you’re an actor trying to decide whether you want to spend a portion of your life being this character, of course you’ll consider how interesting, fun, exciting it will be to live in their skin. And so, as the writer, that’s something to consider, too: how can you offer an interesting, fun, exciting experience to any actor who takes on the role?

Fix the character on the page

Once you’ve figured out what you want or need to convey, how do you incorporate it into the script?

First, avoid one very common pitfall: trying to “fix it with a line of dialogue.”

Unless the issue you’re discussing really is just a clarification or detail that can be addressed with a dialogue tweak, you probably want to think more holistically.

Similarly, tacking on a character tic or even adding a relationship (giving the character a child or another vulnerable character to take care of) may be part of the solution, but truly making the character more compelling (especially to actors) means going deep rather than wide.

Give your actors something to dig into and your audience will appreciate the results.

So – as much as it may hurt to hear – think about the big picture. Define a clear, interesting, and emotional character arc, develop the character’s internal conflict and stakes, figure out what the story is about thematically. And then find ways to layer that stuff into the script in scenes and in subtext.

Revisit each of the character’s scenes to make sure the way they show up would be appealing to an actor. Meaning, there’s range there, there’s something to play in the scene, that they have interesting dialogue (both in specificity and subtext), and at least some of the time there’s something interesting or cool to do.


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.