How to Create Characters That Feel Like Real People

The Ludvico TechniqueStory is, at its core, a metaphor for how to live. We live vicariously through the characters we see on the page or the screen. So it follows that if you're creating characters, they should be as real as possible. That is, of course, easier said than done, and a weak or unbelievable character can kill a screenplay or movie regardless of the plot (experimental film excepted). So what can be done? For writers, an understanding of psychology and human nature are vital in order to see people as they are, making it possible to make up people who are more like people than like characters.

Freud casts a long shadow over western culture. To paraphrase a famous quote, all modern psychological theory is but a series of footnotes and reactions to Freud, who, along with William James and other pioneers, posited the existence, and importance, of the subconscious in human motive. Interestingly, the plays of Shakespeare, which feature acute portrayals of psychology, are among the most enduring and popular, both then and now (especially in the age of psychoanalysis, and he was writing hundreds of years before).

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Freud's work was picked up by artists, who saw in the unconscious an analog to the "madness" revered by the Ancient Greeks; even the arch rationalist Plato said, roughly, that anyone who tried to write a poem without being a little off was not going to write a good poem. So what does this mean for us, as writers? Well, odds are you are doing this (that is, crafting characters psychologically) without thinking about it; but frequently, we writers have no idea that we're doing what we're doing, and even worse, why we're doing it.

E.M. Forster, the British novelist, spoke of "flat" and "round" characters. According to him, each had their place within a story. The flat character is the two-dimensional man or woman who has no inner depth. They say things because that's what is needed, not because they need to say them. A round character is, like a human, a mess of contradictions, a human being full of contradictory desires that pull the story along, and if they are drawn correctly, they can seem more real than the people we meet in the street. Knowing all this, then, why do so many screenplays feature characters who seem to do nothing except move the plot along?

Is this Id?

The Id, according to Freud, is the monster that lurks within us, all desire and selfish need; think Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He is, by all objective standards, a monster, yet we identify with him because Kubrick, and Malcolm McDowell, make him into the most alive character in the film's world, where everyone else is a lifeless, drab caricature. A character driven by Id does what we cannot, and lives in a way that we cannot. Hence, the appeal of the villain. Tony Montana is another example of  a socially irresponsible dude who is also a hero to millions. But where Kubrick subverts the narrative and has Alex triumph (implicating the audience in a way not found in the novel upon which the movie is based), Oliver Stone's screenplay does what audiences demand, which is to show that the Id, unchecked, will lead a character to no good end.

A character driven by their Id, primarily, is actually not that complicated, closer to flat than round. They want things, and they take them. They work, but when we add other dimensions, characters become more than just surrogates, they become us.

Super Ego, Maniacs, & Conflict

Freud posited that in order to keep the Id in check, people develop a superego, which acts as a sort of authority figure/policeman. And what is the basis of drama? That's right. Conflict. We cannot do what we want to, all the time. Think about this in your own life. What we want, versus what we can do, is a huge part of our day to day experience. It makes us human, and giving your characters these conflicts is vital. So create a character who is in conflict with their id and you have instant conflict. And an interesting character. A character who has an active id, yet finds themselves in conflict with their superego and ego (or, in a vast oversimplification, the conscious part of our personality).

Another thing to consider is that many times, writers tend to use themselves as a model for the main character in the work they're writing. This is normal, but can sometimes lead to being too easy on the protagonist. And that is not a recipe for an interesting story. Have you ever read a story where the main character went through the story, confronting problems which, while vexing, were easily solved? Did that story captivate your imagination? Odds are, no.

Think about your own life: when all is well, you tend to adhere to the status quo. After all, why mess with a good thing? But the foundation of narrative is drama, and drama is trouble. Story is nothing more and nothing less than the universe out of balance, and the attempts to set it right (whether successful or unsuccessful. And the universe out of order can be anything, but it has to be bad, because only if it's dire will the crucible of circumstance burn away all the niceties of a character's external self and leave the core; that means that your character has to undergo the worst thing possible, and then something even worse than that, and so on; how they react is the story. Have you ever been writing and found yourself surprised by a character's actions? Then you're on the right track.

Why So Serious?

Modern, western people are not, in general, super happy. Which is weird! Because we live longer than we ever have, the average middle-class person in western Europe, the U.S., or any part of the so-called first world, provided with an average income has a standard of living better than any medieval king (to list but a few boons of the modern age: indoor plumbing, heat and air conditioning, refrigeration of food, vaccines, far less threat of violence in daily life, etc.) And yet, we are not a happy lot. In fact, humanity is more alienated and miserable than ever. So if you're happy, well, you know, you should, like, get with the program.

The reasons for this are manifold, but the theme of the century has been alienation, and alienation stems from a lack of coherence; the modern world is confusing, and story is no longer able to guide us, at least in a profound way. Art depicts life as disjointed; we are not connected to each other or to our work (writers excepted), and we worry constantly. I think it has something to do with the fact that the central fear, the main motivating factor in every human being, is a fear of death. It is the one universal experience that is a total mystery, and without the comfort of religion to explain things, people are left adrift in a world where science and consumerism become the new faith, and yet they are unable to provide any comfort to the vast majority of people, who, as Freud said, depended on religion.

Add to this the mechanization of death (WWI caused shockwaves in the arts that can still be felt; that nightmarish conflict gave us surrealism, Dada, and what we think of as the avant-garde, as well as the modern world.) In literature, it delivered the protagonists of Hemingway, conflicted and numb, and Camus' The Stranger, totally alienated from himself and experience. Film noir is a direct descendant of this new attitude towards life. No longer were things clear. In this new world, we have infinite choice, and infinite freedom, but also an infinite responsibility for the meaning (or meaninglessness) of our lives.

Modern characters, no matter the conflict of their story, were wrestling with the mystery of death and finding no peace. It follows, then, that one could say every story is a metaphor for death, and, since the invention of nuclear weapons and the possibility of total destruction of the species, a certain nihilism has crept into human affairs. God's apocalypse was replaced with man's, and again, this absurd situation, that we could bring about our own annihilation for no reason other than some twisted logic, was too much for the psyche to bear. Which is why the one movie that captures the insanity of the situation so well is Dr. Strangelove, another Kubrick film. He realized that in the face of such insanity, the only reaction was insanity. You can't play the apocalypse straight. But I digress.

It can be useful, when writing, to use the techniques of Stanislavski, the great Russian actor and teacher and exponent of "sense memory," the practice of not acting a scene, but living it, through careful reconstruction of sensory detail. Interestingly, Stanislavski was not influenced by Freud so much as a 1910 book called The Psychology of Emotions (the link points to an online copy), written by one Theodule Ribot. There are parallels between Freud and Stanislavski, though. The superego can be compared to Stanislavski's "superobjective,or the overriding goal of a character that, more than anything, guides them. The Id could also be seen to find its place in the "subtext" of a work, as the hidden emotions of the character, the words behind the words, so to speak.

Before Stanislavski's methods made their way into the mainstream, film acting was more of a surface affair; in Hollywood, you can see the change in performance happen almost overnight, when his indirect disciples, Marlon Brando and James Dean, brought a new form of "realism" to the screen; at the time, it shocked audiences; today, anything else is considered hopelessly hokey. Some people even think that this sort of technique is dangerous for the psyche, because of the danger that an actor can plumb too deep, to levels where they are (to complete the metaphor) out of their depth.

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In a sense, you have to be heartbroken to write heartbreak; that doesn't mean crying, but it does mean remembering what it feels like, in all its dimensions. And you have to have the fearlessness to throw your character into the pit of life; classic, favorite characters are ones who confront life, wrestle with death, go toe to toe with the big questions, even if the questions are posed sideways, as metaphor (which is usually the case). Every obstacle is more than itself; each one stands for the "big" questions, and the story you're telling is, in the end, nothing more or less than the story of the character wrestling with these obstacles and revealing their true selves in the process as they progress towards their goal (and the end).

Our lives are stories. The more we learn to see what motivates us as the protagonist in our lives, and the more we interrogate our motives, the more realistic our characters will be. We say, in figures of speech, that a true thing "resonates," and that falsehoods don't ring true; a truth is something you can't ignore, a ringing bell. And if writing is a way to find out who you are, then the more we know about ourselves, the more likely it is that the people we write will be more people than characters.


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Great article. This has some very helpful info that I'm going to use to address some of the flatness of my characters.

July 24, 2014 at 4:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Fantastic article. Really hits the point on the head of a nail. Every real person has inner conflicts of good and bad, so characters should have the same.

July 24, 2014 at 5:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Dani Rabinowitz

Very profound! This article itself is a creative master piece!

July 24, 2014 at 9:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thanks for the article; very clear. Really helped me

July 24, 2014 at 9:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You did a great job with this article!
You should put a special menu with all these article about script writing so we can find them easily later. When I'll start writing my next film I'll definitely re-read it again!
Thanks and keep doing it ;-)

July 24, 2014 at 9:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Fantastic read!! So many good points and bits of advice not only for writing but for life itself. Well done, James Morrow

July 24, 2014 at 9:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Now this is a real article and not just scumming clicks of someone elses content.

Wonderful. Well done!

July 24, 2014 at 10:26AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Exactly. Most internet articles are clickbait 2 paragraph summaries that redirect to original article, which is fine if you have something to add or if you are a curator of information, but some sites are only that. NoFilm school has writers who contribute university level critique and analysis. It is much appreciated!!!!

July 24, 2014 at 10:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


This is consistently one of my favorite filmmaking blogs. Thank You and excellent work.

July 24, 2014 at 10:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


If Alex is Id, who are these characters:

Freddie Quell
Travis Bickle
The Joker (Ledger)

July 24, 2014 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thank you! More articles like this please. More philosophy and psychology. Tho maybe not freud lol

July 24, 2014 at 11:52AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Really appreciate re-learning about fundamentals. Always helpful.

July 24, 2014 at 12:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


just read john truby's book

July 24, 2014 at 7:03PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Hat's off! Great article!

July 24, 2014 at 8:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I think it was Hemingway who said, ~ "There's surface of the character and then there's a sub-surface". In other words, there's obvious motivation and then there's a sub- or unconscious motivation that is deeply rooted in someone's psyche.
Of course, the sub- and unconscious is rarely found in today's movies but it is something that is often present in TV.

July 24, 2014 at 10:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Great points!! Keep up the great work!!!!

July 25, 2014 at 12:28AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Whoa! What did you have for breakfast?! This is one of the most fun articles I've ever read... Really the kind of stuff I love exploring.

At the great risk of subjecting myself to insane hatred and ridicule, allow me to say that this Freudian stuff is the tip of the iceberg, and if you are serious about getting into the real deal you'll have to study Chassidic/Kabbalistic models from a reliable source only. It breaks the inner workings of consciousness into a very brilliant and insightful system that doesn't contradict Freud at all but shows how he was only focused on part of the picture, and actually a very small part. It will blow your socks off, but *only if you get it from a reliable source* (Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh is one. No need to look elsewhere till you can understand him).

July 25, 2014 at 1:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Here is a quick intro to the type of stuff I'm talking about. I'll attempt to convey thousands of years of wisdom in a nofilmschool comment. Wish me luck... Keep in mind that the language might seem esoteric or unnecessary, but this was the language they used and I'll stick with it.

First, before breaking anything down, there are two overriding principles: Context and Inter-inclusion. I'm not going to attempt to bring those principles in at each level, but the reader should do that exercise on their own to really understand what's happening and the myriad applications.

Context means that many of the constructs can actually exchange with another depending on the situation (i.e. to borrow a modern term- in politics there's "right wing" and "left wing", but one nation's right is another's left, so first we have to establish a context before we can use terms and be sure of their meaning).

Inter-inclusion means that many of the constructs can contain eachother and there is not a necessary hierarchy. This is a bit hard to explain, but again in modern terms we often speak of "Emotional Intelligence" and "Intelligent Emotion".

OK- so a quick breakdown.

There are 5 levels to the "soul":

1) Nefesh - the physical, instinctual. This would include for example the desire to eat, have sex for physical pleasure, things like that.

2) Ruach - the emotional, behaviouristic. This would include for example the desire to socialize, recieve compliments, things like that.

3) Neshama - the intellectual, foresight. This would include for example the desire to choose a certain career path or place of living, things like that

4) Chaya - the unconscious, semi-prophecy and correct intuition. This would include for example knowing the right person to marry, an intuitive understanding of what we're meant to do in the world, etc.

5) Yechida - the superconscious, true-prophecy. This would include things like knowing the ramifications of our actions throughout the span of time, how it affects the rest of the world, etc.

Within each of those there are 11 dimensions or Sefirot (generally we only speak of these in a system of 10 or 13... but that's outside the scope of this context). As a reminder- while these are inherently divided into things like emotional and intellectual, that very much depends on the context. For example there is "Chesed within Neshama" (Kindness within Intellectual decisions):

1) Keter - Ratzon - Desire and will

2) Chochma - Wisdom - Expansive consciousness

3) Binah - Receptive Understanding - Careful Analysis

4) Daat - Knowing - Intellectual integration

5) Chesed - Expansive emotion (lovingkindess for example)

6) Gevurah - Restrictive emotion or strength (refraining, subduing)

7) Tiferet - Emotional balance (mercy, compassion)

8) Netzach - Lasting, eternal, carrying forward, bestowing

9) Hod - Acceptance, acknowledgement, gratitude

10) Malchut - Combination and Expression of all the above.

Now, along with the contextual level of a sefira being within a soul, the sefirot can also be inter-included. So you have things like "Chesed within Geuvrah" and so on (and each of those within each soul level).

There is much more, but to add a fun twist, all these things can be oriented toward evil or good. Those terms get thrown around a lot, but we really mean whether it's self-serving or for the purpose of making the world better. So someone can want to eat because they are a glutton or they can want to eat because they need energy in order to cook soup for a sick person. Both are physical desires of eating, but they are oriented differently.

So... let's think about constructing a character with all that in mind :) The opportunity for conflict between each level is unbelievably rich and real. Here's a simple example to tie it together.

1) A person's desire for what they want to do in the world (Keter of Neshama)

2) A person's contemplated understanding of what they should do in the world (Binah of Chaya)

3) A person's emotional need to give love (Chesed of Ruach)

4) A person's acceptance they they must not give their love to someone (Hod of Ruach)

That's a good start. Wouldn't a character based on those basic things be very real and full of conflict and dimension? Now pair them with another character of the same and put their basic desires at various levels at odds.

This is territory that should be given much more thought in the world.

July 25, 2014 at 2:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


this made a lot of sense, thank you for the thoughtful breakdown. will look into this - lot of potential for developing nuanced characters.

August 28, 2014 at 1:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Why do we need "real" characters?? why do we feel the need to identify with characters in a film? Are these signs that we go to the theatre to feel alive rather than to escape? Do we look to live vicariously through fictional characters so as to fill in the missing creativity and liberation in our own lives? Maybe escape is hard because it forces change, and to step out of a theatre as if reborn is shocking, instead we leave feeling our already preconceived notions have been validated and confirmed. I personally have never left a theatre saying to myself "i loved it, it was soo much like real life!" All your points are great, most of the time even overestimating the films u use to illustrate them.... But just want to remind everyone that what you are referring to is only ONE way of making films and it is a rigidly narrative mindset. The future of cinema will not be about how "real" your characters are, this need for vicarious reality has very much to do with post world war american artistic oppression and our current war of terrorism. There will come a time when the masses will return to the poetry of cinema with the freedom to escape and enjoy forgetting, which sometimes is the best way to be reminded.

July 25, 2014 at 10:13AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM



July 28, 2014 at 1:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Films are an experience not a formulation of problems....this is the tyranny of novels and the stage holding its tight grip on cinema...

July 25, 2014 at 10:28AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I liked the article. But i also think that is to simple. It really need more insights. Screenwriting is more hard than that. And express human emotion reading these books in the article is not enough.


For instance:

1 - In comedy, characters react in crazy ways. So, is not only experimental movies.

2 - There is a great book about emotion called Writing for Emotional Impact. The truth is... Sometimes you need to flip the cliché emotion. Someone die... What about if the widow laugh in in the kitchen? Mistic River do that a little. Sean Penn react in a very serious way. Sometimes he laughs.

3 - Emotion is hard. And sometimes the montage express the emotion.

4 - The setting metters. The genre you writing metters. Crazy reactions in horror movies can become ridicoulous. Some stories don't work well in some cities. As Mckee says: "some events only work in your city".

Observation: i'm brazilian and i sucks in english. I still learning.

July 25, 2014 at 4:00PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Roberto Carlos

I studied psychology and would not agree with the statement that all modern psychological theory is but a series of footnotes and reactions to Freud. William James himself contradicts Freud in may ways as he described our constant stream of awareness. In fact In modern day's Freuds theory is almost dead. Psycholanalis is widely regard more a commercial form of psychology that a scientific one. Some label it alchemy. Behavioural, clinical psychology, abnormal psychology and cognitive scientists have taken over providing more solid proof for their theory. However Freuds model remains applicable as a tool to define human behaviour as a working method, more that scientific truth. While shaping characters one could ask himself, how would this go about in real life and while writing one should use speech language instead of writers language. That will bring you closer to reality too. A script is the actors anchor and shouldn't therefor be too polished, but should consist of language appropriate to the emotion of the situation.

August 8, 2014 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


great article, I'm writing my own scripts for my short films. And being from more a graphic design background, it feels a bit hard sometimes to write without the knowledge of the form and substance. after reading story by robert mckee, the hero with a thousand faces, poetics, the unconscious collective by Jung. I found even more lost than before. so far, the only book that shed a bit of light in character creation is Lajos Egri - The art of dramatic writing, its a good insight in Human motives.

October 16, 2014 at 3:33AM, Edited October 16, 3:33AM