The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Character

What is your most interesting quality? What is your deepest fear? When are you the happiest and what always makes you cry? What makes you angry, gets you annoyed, or brings you peace?

When you answer these questions you reveal character.

Obviously you can’t base every character you write on your own character traits, but you can use them as a template. If your deepest fear is being trapped in a room filled with spiders then:

  1. You would not willingly enter into a situation where spiders are involved (let alone a tight, closed space crawling with them)
  2. You would do everything in your power to stay clear of such a space
  3. You would probably freak if circumstances beyond your control forced you into such a space

But consider this scenario: in order to save the life of someone you care deeply about you have to brave the spider-filled room.

How do you react? Do you try to find a different way to save the life of your loved one due to your unwillingness to enter into this heart-attack-defying situation? When you realize there is no other way – do you try to find an excuse and give the task to someone else, or simply turn and run for the hills? Or do you finally accept the challenge and venture into the space to conquer your fears?

Your reaction to facing danger is anchored in your character traits: if you’re more prone to selfish choices you will ignore the challenge and pawn it off on someone else, or worse, leave your friend to die; if you’re constantly in a battle with yourself over wanting to be more courageous and up until now always having failed to, then your friend’s peril might be the push you need to finally prove to yourself that there’s more to you than what you deep down believe yourself to be.

You see what I’m doing here, right? Groovy! Because by deciding whether your protagonist is a diamond in the rough or already a full-fledged leader on the hunt for a mission you will have the advantage from the get-go. You see, your character and your plot are like a pair of Siamese twins – ultimately they are sewn at the hip and there is no use trying to separate them because they share one heart – and this beating heart is what will touch the audience and make them want more, or even better, make them come back for a second, third and fourth viewing!

You could fill your movie with stereotypical characters, sure, but then you will have to force them into a plot that really has nothing to do with them, because it hasn’t sprung from their goals and growth. At the same time, if you work too hard on filling your movie with quirky characters and forget to put them through the trials and tribulations of a well-structured plot, then their goals and growth will be unclear, leaving the audience with the feeling of what, really, was the point of all that?

How to avoid such dire straits?

Sit down with your protagonist, have a cuppa and just chat. Doesn’t have to be long. But once you have the answers to the questions I opened this post with they will undoubtedly present you with at least a handful of situations that these characters really should be placed in during the progression of your plot. Your protagonist’s answer to what their deepest, darkest fear is will be one of the more crucial ones as this will give you an immediate idea of a fitting antagonist.

Ah, the antagonist. The most important thing to remember when it comes to the antagonist is to ask them the same questions you asked your protagonist. The Lazy Writer creates an antagonist that is evil for the sake of being evil, kicking puppies and dicing up children for the fun of it. You don’t want to be a Lazy Writer.

So when you have quizzed your characters (all of them) and learned their character traits it’s time to ask why they have given you these particular answers. This is something you might do once you’ve gone through the blaze of glory that is finishing your first draft, but the sooner you make the word Why your screenwriting mantra, the better.

The reason is simple: you should strive to find situations that pit your protagonist against their own view of themselves and flips that view clear on its head. Head-flipping is very effective. If you haven’t done the quiz then it’s much harder to pinpoint the needed situation because you can’t ask why the character needs to go through it in the first place.

So, here’s some food for thought when striving to reveal character:

  1. The Quiz – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Write your own quiz! Write down ten or twenty or one hundred things you’d like to know about each character in your story and see what you come up with. Perhaps you realize that sideshow Marjorie shouldn’t be happily married with kids because that does absolutely nothing to create tension with your protagonist. Perhaps instead sideshow Marjorie lives in a loft and likes to play with knives. And perhaps your protagonist will desperately need to borrow said knives by the end of the second act. Just saying.
  2. The Siamese Twins – your plot should grow from the needs of your characters and your characters’ actions should service the momentum of the plot. If you really think about it, every movie does this in some way. Okay, every good movie does. Your idea is: an alien invasion threatens the survival of every person on the planet. You could make a bombastic blockbuster out of this, but unless you people it with relatable characters that the audience can root for your blockbuster ain’t gonna be bustin’ no blocks.
  3. The Situation – you people your movie with relatable characters by placing them in situations where they get a chance to interact with each other, with the world, with the threat of that world/their lives. These situations are what make up your scenes, that then build into sequences, that then – with sweat and toil and through rewrites – pearl themselves into a string of plot that is cohesive and engaging. And that leads us to…
  4. The Why – truly one of the most important tools you can carry with you always when it comes to every aspect of writing anything ever is the ability to question everything. Why is this important? What does this say about my character, the character relationships, the plot, the world? If my character is eating a burrito, is it because she loves it or is she trying it for the first time? Why has she never tried it before? Why is she trying it now? Why, why, why is this important? But then, of course, eventually you must stop questioning. And be satisfied. Or you’ll never be done.

Remember: find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this!

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