Idea to Outline Step #3

Character, relationships, and theme


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, pre-writing, screenwriting, theme
screenplay outline blog character relationship theme

We’re already at Step #3 of this Idea to Outline series and yes – we’re definitely covering the steps at a faster pace than you can apply them.

That’s intentional-ish. In this series my aim is to give you a roadmap of one process you can use to take your screenplay idea and turn it into a viable outline. You can then go at your own pace and do the development work on your own timeline.

Now, on to Step #3. In this development step we’re aiming to bring the characters and relationships into sharper focus, and to narrow in a bit more on the story’s theme. So, as you can see, this step builds a lot on work you’ve done in the previous steps.


By this point you know who your main characters are. Now what do you do with them? How do you flesh them out? How much do you need to know about them in order to start writing?

You can write character bios and backstories if you want. Personally, I’m not a big fan though your mileage may vary. And that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in knowing your characters. If you have a solid grasp on your characters, it makes writing them into scenes infinitely easier and more enjoyable.

So there are a few key things I do think it’s very helpful to know in this development phase. Consider this your Character Minimum Viable Product.

1. What’s their Inner Drive?

Meaning, what is the internal motivation or desire that is with the character from page 1 of the script.

It’s the state in which, or sometimes the very reason, they show up in this story. The thing they’re in process of from page 1. It’s often caused by some defining moment or experience in the past, or may be some defining quality in the way the character sees him- or herself.

  • In Die Hard, John McClane’s inner drive is to fix his marriage.
  • In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s inner drive is to make up for her past, when she was too weak to save the lambs.
  • In Bridesmaids, Annie’s inner drive is to avoid risk or change, and therefore avoid further loss.

Knowing the inner drive for your character is helpful in so many ways, but in particular because it helps you figure out what they should be doing in that sometimes-squishy early section before the events of the story kick into gear (at the Inciting Incident). Not to mention your audience learns who your characters are by what they’re doing when we meet them, again often before the story events really take off.

2. What are their defining characteristics? (And one of them should be their “misbehavior”.)

What’s a “misbehavior”? It’s sometimes referred to as a character’s flaw, but that can be misleading. It doesn’t have to be an objectively negative quality, it’s just a behavior or strategy that’s not serving the character as well as they think. It’s a survival strategy which is about to end its usefulness to the character. And it’s usually the character’s defining quality in the story.

Which makes sense, right? Movies are about defining moments. So if a movie is going to show what kind of person this character truly is, or call into question who they think they are, then it’s going to test their defining quality.

In general, we want characterizations to feel reliable, but complex. That means establishing a pattern of behavior we can wrap our brains around, and then showing us the specific circumstances under which that character will break from their patterns. What must happen to force a new behavior.

That’s what happens in your screenplay as your character contends with the events of the plot, right? So the misbehavior will be a big part of that reliable pattern. And then you can round out the characterization with a few other qualities that complement or branch out from that misbehavior. Those might be worldview, two or three specific adjectives to describe their personality, their most valued virtue or vice, etc. Whatever handful of things make up the core of that character.

And here are some additional tips on making your characters compelling (even if they’re not likeable).


Based on the plot you’ve begun to tease out, you probably have an idea of a few supporting characters your story will need. In this step, in addition to thinking about their characterization, we’ll think about the supporting characters in terms of their relationships to the protagonist and the function that each of them fulfills in the story.

Supporting characters are all about the conflict they bring to the table.

Why? Because conflict is what forces change, and that’s what we’re watching – what changes (or not) and why.

But… you don’t always want every supporting character in your screenplay to be physically at odds with your protagonist. Often the supporting characters challenge something internal to the main character. That challenge to the main character’s worldview, attitude, or belief then (if strong enough) causes an effect on the main character’s actions. How the challenge affects (changes) the main character reveals new facets of the main character.

You can see some of the most common ways supporting characters can challenge the main character to transform in this article, but essentially they are:

  • Through a display of a new worldview,
  • Through challenging the main character’s (lack of) faith in him/herself,
  • Through a display of what not to do, or
  • Through setting the high bar that the main character aspires to.

So for now, the goal is to identify three or four supporting characters your story needs (fewer is okay too). And write a brief description of their function in the plot, how they interact with the main character, and how that challenges the main character to change.

But wait! Before you start working, know that you don’t have to work through these things in this order. And, in fact, it may be helpful to think about the next section first.


We started exploring the theme of the story in Step #1 when we discussed the “what’s it about” and now we’re going to push it just a little further.

Everyone comes at theme in their own way and has their own understanding of what it is and how it works. For our purposes:

Theme is the takeaway message of your screenplay. It’s the worldview that the story conveys. A universal truth or life lesson. It also serves as the story’s organizing principle.

So that’s what we’re ultimately aiming for. But right now, in these early stages? It’s okay to not know exactly what the takeaway message you want to impart will be. At this point, it’s okay to settle on a thematic area.

That’s simply an area of thought you’re going to explore in the story. Knowing this allows you to make choices that live in this area. As the story develops and you make more and more choices, eventually the takeaway theme will naturally emerge.

The thematic area might be something like “the things parents do for their children.” Or “the good of the one vs. the good of the group.” Something that’s not so much value charged, but offers some solid parameters.

Of course, if you already know the theme (the value-charged takeaway or thesis statement you want to make), then that’s great. Either way is perfectly okay at this point.

And that’s it! It’s A LOT for one development step, so don’t feel like you need to sit down and run through all of this in one go. Again, this is a roadmap you can travel at your own pace.


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.