Diana Black on Creating Characters Actors Want to Play

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re a new writer trying to break into the biz, more than likely you’re doing all you can to write in a way that’ll impress the gatekeepers, AKA agents, producers, and executives. But you also need to write in a way that works for those actually working on the production. Foremost among them are actors because hey, let’s face it, we really don’t have a show or film without ’em. Actors are the reason audiences tune in – or out – and, ultimately, if the actors don’t like the writing, well, the writer’s in deep you-know-what.

Because of the above, TVWriter™ is proud to present the first in what we hope will be a long series of articles about how to write the way actors need things written. How to give them something to do and somebody to be. Your guide in this series will be Australian actress and writer Diana Black. Take it away, Diana!


Writing for Actors – 1
by Diana Black

‘Still waters run deep…’

‘A man of few words…’

To what do the above allude?


How often have you as a screenwriter been criticized for not having a distinctive voice associated with each of your characters? Equally reprehensible, what if the characters all sound like you? How come? It’s your responsibility to ensure each character can get up off the page. Are you inept or simply being lazy? Both are in your control and avoidable. We’ve all seen films and TV Shows with mono-dimensional characters lacking a distinctive voice. Do you remember them…rather sad if you do, don’t you think?

Let’s say that someone with more money than artistic sense green lights your could-be-better TV Pilot – great news; enjoy the spoils quickly. Audiences aren’t stupid and a sure-fire way to ensure your work is forgettable by not only them but the industry is to infuse it with mediocrity. While it must have had something going for it, you risk ‘game over’.

What drives one character to have a different voice than another? It is not just the lines they deliver – that’s a product of … [DRUM ROLL]…character. While episodic television may be considered plot-driven that is only after a bible has been written that includes an in-depth character profile for all the characters; at the very least, the leads, recurring and guest roles. They in turn, have to work not only separately but fuel each other with unrelenting conflict.

So what constitutes an in-depth character profile? Possible suggestions…

Why do they have the name they have, what’s special about it? Do they have their own specific log line – why this character and not some other? Why are they essential to this story? How are they unique? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

What is underneath the surface of this character? Their subtext is fuelled by their world view, values and belief systems, the rules they are willing to obey and those they ignore, their childhood experiences and their cultural background. A professional actor plays the subtext, not the line.

Their wants over the whole narrative arc must then be reflected in every scene and in every line of dialogue. That want is unlikely to be overtly spoken, but it fuels their choice of action and dialogue. Have you developed their psychological need, even though it remains hidden from them? Throughout the narrative, this need will cause them to undergo change; with them kicking and screaming all the way. What are their failings and why do they fail? What are their delusions – about themselves and others?

How do they deal with the others; those they wish to get romantically involved with and those they don’t? How patient are they with others (or not); why? Who are their enemies; why? Have you identified their fears; conscious and unconscious? Not only does fear layer character, it gives you scope to give them hell. Humanity is also fuelled by jealousy, so what makes them insecure?

Their physicality will be influenced by their psychology; manifested in how they walk, how they talk and their mannerisms.

A professional actor will endeavor to bring their own flavor to that character but only after they have fully understood and internalized the character profile you’ve provided.

More to come!