Character background is vitally important when writing movie scripts. When you are developing a character, you need to be aware that they do not live in a vacuum. Their environment and upbringing will shape them greatly. A 40 year old man from 18th century England will be vastly different from a 40 year old man from present day England.
If you want to understand a character you need to understand the context of the character. Think of context as the jug and the character as water. As the water is poured into the jug the shape it takes depends on the shape of the jug.
There are many cultural influences you have to consider when planning out your character.
Ethnic – How would Irish American differ from an Italian American? Think about their speech, how they express themselves, mannerisms, attitudes and life philosophy.
Social – Is your character from an well-to-do Washington family or a dirt poor Detroit family? How would this affect them?
Religious – Your character will have a religious philosophy. They could be Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic or Atheist? How would this change their attitudes to people of other religions? Or how they deal with moral situations?
Education – How long did your character go to school? Did they enjoy it? Were they popular? What did they study?
The Time Period
Most scriptwriters choose to write in the current period. This is because the audience of the time can relate to cultural references and a lot less research is required.
Setting a script in the future is no problem as you can choose to take the world in any direction you wish but the past is a lot more tricky. You need to take into account that the way characters talk will be quite different. The vocabulary, rhythm, obscenities and meanings of words will not be the same as today’s speech pattern. Similarly the clothes, amenities and buildings were vastly different. This all needs to be researched thoroughly if you want the world your script is in to be realistic.
A script set in New York will undoubtedly have a much different flavor to one set in Rhode Island. It is a lot easier to write about the place you live than somewhere you have never even seen before. This cuts down on the amount of research needed as you know a lot more about the area you’ve lived in for the last 20 years than somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit but never got round to.
It is unwise to write about a location that you’ve never been to before but it can be done. It just requires a lot of specific research. The location affects clothing, attitudes, pace of life, accents, etc.
The occupation of a character and how it affects them is often overlooked in film and can be downright ignored in a TV series. A farmer is going to have a much different pace of life than a stockbroker. A model is going to dress more stylishly than a postal worker. Depending on the occupation the character may have a unique set of skills. A negotiator is going to be very good at working people around to his way of thinking.
Also the occupation and cultural background can prove to be closely related. That well-to-do Washington man is a much more likely to be the CEO of a company than the dirt-poor Detroit man.
Interview Your Character
You might find it helpful to write out an interview with your character to find out their character background. Imagine they are someone you’ve just met for the first time and you want to find out more about them. Ask serious questions. Also ask some daft ones!
Perhaps the best question you can ever ask a character is “what would you do if…?”