Using Adversity To Develop Characters

There’s a secret in Hollywood. Luckily it’s not very well kept. The secret is that few stories are happy ones, albeit they often have happy endings. Insiders know that if you want to have a captivating story with well developed characters then you need a whole heap of adversity.

Imagine a screenplay telling the story of a couple of shopkeepers on an average day, with nothing going wrong. It’d make for a poor movie, wouldn’t it? That’s because any good movie is steeped in conflict and adversity. It is how the characters deal with the conflict and adversity that creates drama, action, comedy, romance and so on as well as the boatload of emotions associated with them. Adversity creates the story that you are trying to tell in your screenplay.

There are a number of different types of adversity you could use to create your story:



Physical adversity is illness, injury, death and the threat of each driving your character. Physical adversity is particularly prevalent in action and adventure movies. There is no greater adversity than being faced with your own death, or the death of a loved one.


All characters have wants and needs that are unfulfilled. Some desires are obvious and in plain sight, others are more hidden and subconscious. It is the unfulfilled desire that often drives the character throughout the screenplay.

Miscommunication and deception

Favored adversity of the screwball comedy is miscommunication and deception. Typically a character will either misunderstand or be lied to by another character, altering his world view into an incorrect one.


Whenever a character is placed in an unfamiliar location or situation they are facing displacement adversity. The best example of a movie dealing with displacement would be Lost In Translation. Displacement can be big or small. It can be as big sending a character to a future time or as a small as a new friend being injected into a character’s clique.


Relationships are everywhere. Every relationship you have probably has an interesting story to tell whether it be a family member, friend, work colleague or pet. Relationships are forged by characters going through adversity together. When there is adversity within the relationship a character must either change the relationship status, be changed by the relationship, accept the relationship or fight against the relationship.

While conflict drives the story forward the adversity drives the character development. However it is not the adversity that is so important, it’s how the character reacts deals with the adversity. If you create a character who has no worries, no stress and no problems then the reader will have no interest. And no interest means no purchase.

Using adversity to develop a character means exploring the character you’ve created. As the scriptwriter and creator you must find the way a character would react to a situation, and what it would take for that reaction to change. If a character makes the same decision, in the same situation, twice and it doesn’t work then your character hasn’t learned. For a character to develop they have to learn and improve themselves.

It’s natural for a viewer to imagine themselves dealing with adversity in a different way, but you need to convince them that you’ve captured exactly how that character would deal with that specific adversity.

To truly develop a character through adversity you need to:

Know your characters inside and out.

The more time you’ve spent creating your character and analyzing them the more you will know about them. The more you know about them the easier it becomes to work out their thought process. Once you know the character’s thought process you can work out exactly how they deal with whatever adversity comes there way. Bear in mind that a character will deal with relationship adversity differently than displacement adversity.

Choose how your characters will change and how they’ll stay the same.

As your story develops so will your character. You’ll want a few elements of their personality to change while others stay the same. You need to decide how your characters change and then come up with a reason why they change. This has an added bonus of allowing scenes in your screenplay to almost write themselves.

Mix and change things up.

As balanced as a person may be they will always have some contradictions within their personality. Blofeld was an evil villain hell bent on world domination and killing James Bond, yet he showed great love and affection towards his cat. Similarly you may have a character who appears calculating and ruthless becomes a softy at the sight of a baby. These contradictions add a whole new dimension to a character.

As a character grows you may find that you need to change events and situations in your screenplay so both the character and plot can develop further. Don’t worry. This is a very good sign, it shows that the main character has taken on a life of its own.

Finally I want you to remember that character growth and plot growth should be finely balanced, like the yin and yang of the screenplay. This way the audience will leave the movie having seen a memorable story with an unforgettable cast of characters.