The Art of Role and Cast Design for Page, Stage, and Screen


By Robert Mckee

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The long-awaited third volume of Robert McKee’s trilogy on the art of fiction. 
Following up his perennially bestselling writers' guide Story and his inspiring exploration of the art of verbal action in Dialogue, the most sought-after expert in the storytelling brings his insights to the creation of compelling characters and the design of their casts.
CHARACTER explores the design of a character universe: The dimensionality, complexity and arcing of a protagonist, the invention of orbiting major characters, all encircled by a cast of service and supporting roles.


Characters are not human beings. A character is no more human than the Venus de Milo, Whistler’s Mother, and Sweet Georgia Brown are women. A character is a work of art—an emotive, meaningful, memorable metaphor for humanity, born in the mind-womb of an author, held safe in the arms of story, destined to live forever.


For most writers, what’s past is past, and so they focus on future trends, hoping to improve their chances for production or publication by adapting to what’s current. Writers should indeed stay in tune with their times, but while cultural and aesthetic vogues come and go, there are no trends in human nature. As evolutionary science has shown in study after study, humanity has not evolved for eons. The guys and gals who stenciled their handprints on the walls of caves forty thousand years ago were doing then what we do today—making selfies.

For thousands of years, artists and philosophers portrayed and studied human nature, but then, beginning in the late nineteenth century, science focused on the mind behind that nature. Researchers evolved theories of human behavior ranging from psychoanalysis to behaviorism to evolutionism to cognitivism. These analyses labeled and catalogued traits and flaws by the dozens, and without question their perceptions stimulate the writer’s creative thinking about characters and casts. This book, however, does not favor any single school of psychology. It gathers concepts from many disciplines to trigger the imaginings and intuitions that inspire and guide the talented.

Character’s primary purpose is to enrich your insights into the nature of the fictional character and sharpen your creative techniques as you invent a complex, never-seen-before cast of personalities, starting with your protagonist, then moving outward through your first, second, and third circles of supporting roles, ending with the nameless passing at the far edges of episodes. To that end, expect reworkings. Chapter by chapter, refrain by refrain, certain primal principles will echo inside new contexts. I reiterate ideas because each time an artist rethinks the familiar in a new light, her comprehension deepens.

In the chapters that follow, the principle of contradiction underpins virtually every lesson in character design. I play opposites against each other: characters versus human beings, institutions versus individuals, traits versus truths, the outer life versus the inner life, and so on. You and I know, of course, that along any spectrum strung between polar extremes, shades of possibility blur into overlaps and admixtures. But for clear, facile perception of character complexity, a writer needs a sensitivity to contrast and paradox, an eye for contradiction that unearths the full range of creative possibility. This book teaches that skill.

As always, I will call on current examples, both dramatic and comic, taken from award-winning films and screen series, novels and short stories, plays and musicals. To those contemporary works, I will also add characters created by canonical authors from the past forty centuries of literacy—Shakespeare first among them. Some of these titles may be unread or unseen by you, but hopefully you’ll add them to your personal program of study.

Characters taken from all eras serve two purposes: (1) The task of an illustration is to exemplify and clarify the point at hand, and, as it happens, the sharpest example is often history’s first. (2) I want you to take pride in your profession. As you write, you join an ancient, noble, truth-telling tradition. Brilliant casts from the past will set the stage for your future writings.

Character has four parts. Part One: In Praise of Characters (Chapters One through Three) explores sources of inspiration for character invention and lays out the foundational work that shapes your talents toward creating superbly imagined fictional human beings.

Part Two: Building a Character (Chapters Four through Thirteen) pursues the creation of never-met-before characters, beginning with methods from the outside in, followed by the inside out, expanding into dimensionality and complexity, ending with roles at their most radical. As Somerset Maugham expressed it, “The only inexhaustible subject is human nature.”

Part Three: The Character Universe (Chapters Fourteen through Sixteen) contexts character by genre, performance, and reader/audience/character relationships.

Part Four: Character Relationships (Chapter Seventeen) illustrates the principles and techniques of cast design by mapping the dramatis personae of five works taken from prose, cinema, theatre, and longform television.

All told, I will parse the universe of character into its galaxies, galaxies into solar systems, solar systems into planets, planets into ecologies, ecologies into the life force—all in order to help you uncover creative meanings in the human mystery.

No one can teach you how to create story, character, or anything else. Your processes are idiosyncratic, and nothing I teach will do the writing for you. This book is not a how-to but a what-is. All I can do is give you aesthetic principles and examples to illustrate them, laying out parts, wholes, and their relationships. To this course of study, you must add your brains, taste, and long, long months of creative work. I cannot take you by the hand. Instead, I offer knowledge to leverage your talent. To that end, I suggest you read this book slowly, stopping and going to absorb what you’ve learned and give thought to how it applies to your work.

Character strives to deepen your insight into character complexity, sharpen your eye for expressive traits, and in those dark days when inspiration needs a friend, shepherd you through the configuration of an entire cast.


The mind-stubbing word-jams of s/he, he/she, her/him, he-and-she, and her-and-him, along with the mind-numbing pronoun one and the plural pronouns of their, they, and them used to neutralize gender, well intentioned as they may be, slow the read. The singular pronoun he may pretend to be gender neutral, but he is not. So, in odd-numbered chapters, unspecified persons will be female; in even-numbered chapters, they will be male.



Characters shape our lives in ways our fellow human beings do not. Our upbringing sets forces inside us in motion, but once we start to absorb stories, characters become equally important guides and models—far more than our parents and society dare admit. Invented beings enlighten us, help us make precious sense out of ourselves and those around us.

The first three chapters take a deep dive into the elements of human nature, as well as the principles of the storyteller’s art, that form the basis of the fiction writer’s profession. Chapter One opens this study with a look at the differences between imagined and actual human beings.



A human being is an evolving work-in-progress; a character is a finished work-in-performance. Real people impact us directly and explicitly; characters slip into our imaginations and touch us implicitly. Human beings have social lives; characters live in the cast their author invented. People represent themselves; characters symbolize the human spirit.

Once in performance on page, stage, or screen, however, these metaphors become person-like, singular and unique. Unlike the opaque natures of people, brilliantly dramatized characters are clearer yet more complex, intriguing yet more accessible, than anyone you may know. What’s more, once fixed within the parentheses of her story, she stays who she becomes and never changes beyond her story’s climax.

When a human being spills out of reality, it’s into a grave, but when a character spills out of a story, it’s into another story. Jimmy McGill, for example, went from Breaking Bad to inspire the prequel Better Call Saul; Jesse Pinkman did the same for the sequel El Camino.

You don’t have to look far to glimpse the divide between characters and people. Just compare actors to their roles. The finest performers rarely inspire the people in their daily lives the way their characters compel the world’s audiences. Why? Because people experience far more than they express, while characters express everything they experience. A character enters a story as a canister of the past and a sponge for the future, written and performed to express her nature in full, to be known to the core and remembered indefinitely. Great characters are therefore more layered, more dimensional, more involving than the human stuff of their making.

Human beings exist twenty-four hours a day; characters exist between curtain up and curtain down, fade-in and fade-out, first page and last. A person has a life yet to live and it finishes when death decides; a character is finished when her author decides. Her life begins and ends when readers open and close a book or audiences enter and exit a theatre.1

If a character had access to our reality, she would walk out of her story and never come back. She would have other, more pleasant things to do than suffer her fictional life.


Compared to those around us, characters, because of their willingness to stand still while we study them, fill us with insight. As a character talks and acts in front of us, a psychic power seems to take us through her words and deeds, down to her unspoken thoughts and desires, then even deeper into the silent currents in the ultimate subtext, her subconscious mind. When we turn our gaze on ourselves, however, our subconscious stays stubbornly sub. For that reason, the truth of who we really are always remains something of a mystery. As Robert Burns put the problem, “Oh, would some power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” We baffle ourselves at times, but a cast of characters offers a kind of group therapy.

Characters lean into their futures, focused on personal goals, their awareness narrowed by their pursuit. But when we pick up a book or buy a ticket, we first lean back to survey the 360-degree world that encircles the cast, and then forward to peer into psychological depths. Thanks to these aesthetic angles, we can gain insights into characters and their societies often better than we see into ourselves and our own. I often wish I understood myself and the United States as well as I understand Walter White and Breaking Bad.


Relentless contradictions crosscut human nature—good and evil, love and cruelty, generosity and selfishness, wisdom and stupidity, and so on down an endless list of opposites. But in the everyday world, few explore their inner paradoxes to the breaking point. Who of us has dared pursue our fragmented self into the dark depths suffered by Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved? Who has navigated as many points on the moral compass as Better Call Saul’s two-souls-in-one, Jimmy McGill / Saul Goodman? Did William Randolph Hearst live his everyday life with anything like the fatal passions of his cinematic avatar in Citizen Kane?

Even the renowned—Marcus Aurelius, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt—are remembered more as characters than people because biographers novelized them, writers dramatized them, and actors gave them life after death.


People wear masks; characters invite intrigue. We often meet people either too difficult to understand or too irrelevant to bother with, but an author can turn an annoying persona into a personality puzzle. The finest fictional characters demand rigorous concentration and psychological acumen from the writer. Just as we grapple with the difficult people in our lives, we gravitate toward characters who make our brains work. That’s why, with a delicious twist of irony, characters who demand effort feel so very real. The more specific, dimensional, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, the more fascinating and more real a character seems. The more generalized, more consistent, more predictable, and easy to understand, the less real, less interesting, and more cartoonish she seems.2


From a character’s point of view, a river of time pours out of her half-remembered past and spills into an ocean of unknown futures. But from our point of view, storytelling spatializes time within the parentheses of first and last images. Because an author has frozen time’s flow, the observing mind of the reader/audience skates freely back and forth through days, months, years, tracing story lines to their roots, unearthing causes buried in the past, prophesizing future outcomes before the character’s fate arrives.

A story is a metaphor for life that expresses the nature of being; a character is a metaphor for humanity that expresses the nature of becoming. A story unfolds, event by event, but once told it stands, like a work of temporal sculpture, in a state of permanent being. A multifaceted role, on the other hand, changes and reshapes the character’s inner and outer selves through conflict, until the climax sends her into a future beyond the story’s climax, altered in substance and circumstance—an arc of becoming.

Ideas have a life span, often short. That’s why stories tend to rust, and the more era-bound their meanings, the shorter their existence. For even the greatest of stories to survive, their themes need constant, up-to-the-now reinterpretation.

What lasts is character. Homer’s Odysseus, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Mario Puzio’s Michael Corleone, Margaret Atwood’s Offred the Handmaid, and the Charles brothers’ Frasier and Niles Crane will live in the world’s imagination long after their stories have faded from memory.3


When a character’s traits and depths align seamlessly, she emanates beauty. Beauty is not prettiness. Pretty is decorative; beautiful is expressive. This quality has been described as harmony (Plato), radiance (Aquinas), sublimity (Elijah Jordan), clarity and repose (John Ruskin), a deedless calm (Hegel)—all attempts to define the feeling that emanates from fine art, no matter how turbulent or dark the work. A character may be villainous, even Horror-film ugly, but when her traits harmonize into a meaningful whole, she radiates a kind of beauty, however grotesque. And as Plato taught, our response to beauty feels much like love, and so the pleasure we take in a superbly crafted character is more than a matter of judgment—it’s a sense of affection. Beauty amplifies our inner life; kitsch deafens it.4


Empathy with a character calls for refined sensitivity. Vicarious identification excites our senses and energizes our minds. Characters empower us to reflect, to know ourselves from within and without. They show who and why we are who we are in all our strangeness, inconsistency, duplicity, and hidden beauty.5

Henry James said the only reason to write fiction is to compete with life. In the same vein, the only reason to create a character is to compete with humanity, to conjure up someone more complex, more revealing, more magnetic than anyone we might meet. If stories and characters didn’t compete with reality, we wouldn’t write them.6

What do we want from a well-told story? To live in a world we could never experience. What do we want from a well-told character? To experience a life we would never live through a person we could never forget.

Memorable characters find a home in our minds by drawing us into a shared humanity. Linked by empathy, a character takes us through the vicarious yet dynamic experiences of someone else’s emotional life. A memorable character can be separated from her story and then held in the imagination, encouraging us to send our thoughts into the spaces between her scenes, into her past and future.

Unlike us, characters get a lot of help. On the page, vivid prose descriptions and dialogue ignite our mirror neurons and give characters their heightened presence. Onstage and on-screen, actors bring the writer’s creations to life. As audience members, we deepen, refine, and seal each performance with our personal perspectives. As a result, every character acquires unique shadings while she works her way into our psyche. Indeed, like images in dreams, well-written characters are more vivid than their real-life counterparts because, no matter how naturalistically they’re portrayed, at heart characters symbolize the human spirit.


Although characters seem to live in fictional worlds the way people exist in reality, a story’s cast is as artificial as a ballet troupe—a society choreographed to meet an author’s purpose.7 And what is that purpose? Why do writers do this? Why create human facsimiles? Why not spend our days with friends and family, content in their company?

Because reality is never enough. The mind wants meaning, but reality offers no clear beginnings, middles, or ends. Stories do. The mind wants unfettered insight into itself and the secret selves of others, but people wear masks, inside and out. Characters do not. They enter barefaced and exit translucent.

Events, in and of themselves, have no meaning. Lightning striking a vacant lot is pointless; lightning striking a vagrant matters. When an event adds a character, suddenly nature’s indifference fills with life.

As you create your characters, you naturally gather pieces of humanity (your sense of self, your sense of people like you yet not like you, personalities around you that are sometimes strange, sometimes trite, attractive one day, repulsive the next) to create fictional creatures. Yet you know full well that the characters you compose are not their real-life inspirations. Although the people in a writer’s life may spark ideas, like a mother who loves her children in ways she never loves her husband, an author knows she loves the characters that grew in her storied garden in ways she never loves their seeds.

And what do characters need from their creator? Here’s a short list of ten faculties that equip the writer.

1. Taste

Learning to discriminate between bad and good in other people’s writing is not difficult, but to see it in your own calls for guts and judgment powered by an intrinsic disgust with banality and an eye for the vital versus the lifeless. An artist, therefore, needs a keen sense of distaste.8

Bad writing festers with flaws more grievous than clichéd roles and on-the-nose dialogue. Hackwork suffers from the moral failings of sentimentality, narcissism, cruelty, self-indulgence, and, above all, lies that originated in the writer. Tough-mindedness not only inspires truthful writing but a truthful life as well. The more you spot these faults in your own pages and trash them with the repugnance they deserve, the more you avoid them in life.

Sharp-eyed fictions express the gap between the fantasies that distract us and the realities they obscure, between illusion and fact.9 Such works render insights into life as if illuminated from a distant, unseen wisdom. So, the more you read superior writers and watch excellent films, screen series, and theatre, the more you widen and deepen your taste.

2. Knowledge

To pen a superior work of fiction, an author must acquire a godlike knowledge of her story’s setting, history, and cast. Character creation, therefore, demands a writer’s constant observations of herself and the humanity around her—all she knows of life. When she senses a lost past, she can access her most vivid memories. To fill in the blanks between, she can research the life sciences of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and politics. When those don’t teach enough, she can buy a ticket to travel, discover, and explore the unknown firsthand.10

3. Originality

Creative originality calls for insight. An observation may inspire an author, but to enrich what’s on the surface, she adds her unique way of seeing what’s not there, what’s beneath, a hidden truth no one else has spotted before.

More often than not, what’s mistaken for originality is simply the recycling of a forgotten influence. The notion “This has never been done before” is rarely true. Rather, it’s a symptom of the writer’s ignorance of everything other writers have done before she decided to try it herself. Too often the urge to do something different results in a difference that’s not only trivial but worsens the telling. Most stabs at innovation fail because they have in fact been tried before and found hackneyed.

Originality and adaptation are not contradictory, although awards for original versus adapted work perpetuate this myth. With the exception of The Tempest, all of Shakespeare’s plays adapt a found story into a new play.

Genuine innovation is a what, not a how—a new thing, not a new way of doing an old thing. In any medium or genre, a story must generate expectation, escalate stakes, and create surprising outcomes. That’s given. Modernism and postmodernism were powerfully original because they exposed previously unseen subject matter, inverted accepted wisdoms, and refocused the way we looked at life. Those days are gone. Despite the stylistic excesses of transformational special effects in film, fragmentation in literature, and audience participation in theatre, recent decades have seen no revolutions. Techniques that savage art forms lost whatever teeth they had long ago. Today, the avant-garde spirit rips into content, not form, using story to expose the lies the world has learned to live with.

4. Showmanship

Storytelling combines a tightrope walker’s daring with a magician’s gift for deft concealment and surprising revelation. An author, therefore, is first and foremost an entertainer. She gives her reader/audience the dual excitement of the true and the new: first, face-to-face encounters with dangerous truths; and second, never-seen-before characters who confront them.

5. Awareness of the Reader/Audience

Fiction and reality cause experiences that differ in quality but not in kind. A reader’s/audience’s response to a character calls on the same attributes of intelligence, logic, and emotional sensibility that people employ in their daily lives. The chief difference is that an aesthetic experience has no purpose beyond itself. Fiction calls for long-term, uninterrupted concentration that ends with meaningful, emotional satisfaction. Therefore, the writer must craft all characters with an eye to their moment-by-moment impact on the reader/audience.

6. Mastery of Form

To want to create a work of art, you have to have seen one. Your original source of inspiration is not the lives of others, not your life, but the art form itself. A story is a metaphor for life, a massive symbol that expresses maximum meaning from minimal material. Your first experience of story form moved you to fill it with character content—the humanity you find in yourself and others, the dynamic values you sense in society and culture.11

The problem is this: Form is the conduit for content, but ultimately they interlock. As we will see in the next chapter, story is character, and character is story. So before you can master either, you must unlock them. Characters can be taken out of a story and examined psychologically and culturally and given a stand-alone meaning. Walter White, for example, symbolizes corrupt entrepreneurship. But once back inside their story, their meaning may change greatly. So to begin writing, it seems to me, story holds the key.

7. Hatred of Clichés

A cliché is an idea or technique that when first invented was so good—so great, in fact—that people have recycled it again and again and again for decades.

Knowledge of your art form’s history is a basic necessity; an eye that spots a cliché when you see one and, more important, when you write one is an artistic imperative.

For example, the idea that beautiful, young jet-setters enjoying unlimited cocaine and sex are in fact depressed and miserable is not a revelation. Thousands of plays, films, novels, and lyrics have sung that tune. The emptiness of indulgence has been a cliché in both high art and pop culture ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Gatsby.12

If the rich are your subject matter, investigate the multitude of characters created not only by Fitzgerald but Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Tina Fey, and all the films, plays, or television dramedies that featured songs by Cole Porter sung by Frank Sinatra, up to and including the HBO series Succession.

8. Moral Imagination

By moral, I mean more than good/evil or right/wrong. I mean all the positive/negative binaries of human experience, from life/death to love/hate to justice/injustice to rich/poor to hope/despair to excitement/boredom and beyond, that sculpt us and our society.

By imagination, I mean more than daydreaming. I mean an author’s full knowledge of time, place, and character powered by her creative vision. When a writer imagines the peoplescape of her story’s world, her vision of values must guide her sense of what is vital, what is trivial.

A writer’s values shape her unique vision of life, of the global landscape of positive versus negative charges that surround her. What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? Her answers express her moral imagination, her ability to mine the binaries of human experience to envision deeper, more nuanced characters.

My concern is not with Sunday school morality but the value-sensitive imaginations of writers who create and hone characters. You will find yours in the core of being that shapes your humanity. What drives you will in turn drive the creatures you create.

9. An Ideal Self

When not writing, an author can be what writers so often are: a flawed, troubled soul that others find annoying and difficult. But when an author sits down to write, a transformation takes place. As she puts her fingers on the keyboard, she becomes her most intelligent, most sensitive. Her talent, concentration, and above all honesty are at their maximum pitch. This best possible self authors her truest insights into character.

10. Self-Knowledge


On Sale
May 25, 2021
Page Count
336 pages

Robert Mckee

About the Author

Robert McKee, a Fulbright Scholar, is the world’s most sought-after lecturer in the art of story. Over the last 30 years, he has mentored screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, poets, documentary makers, producers, and directors. McKee alumni include over 60 Academy Award winners, 200 Academy Award nominees, 200 Emmy Award winners, 1000 Emmy Award nominees, 100 Writers Guild of America Award winners, and 50 Directors Guild of America Award winners.

Thomas Gerace is the founder and CEO of Skyword, a leading content marketing platform and services company serving brands including Samsung, Philips, Mastercard, IBM, GE, Colgate, and HP. A pioneer in digital marketing, Gerace has helped hundreds of marketing teams to adapt and thrive amid constant disruptive changes in technology and consumer behavior over two decades.

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