Screenwriters are taught to begin constructing characters on the basis of various character TRAITS, attitudes (in response to a social stimulous e.g funny), ATTRIBUTES (more internalized e.g outrageous) SOCIAL SKILLS (e.g witty) and BEHAVIORS (e.g aggressive, placid). These screenwriting parameters help define character and ultimately help you write better stories.
We also define film characters in our scripts in terms of dramatic function such as protagonist and antagonist, socio-economic class, age, gender, geography and other physical parameters. However, we need to delve deeper into the human psyche to create more engaging characters for your movie scripts.
What Is Character?
Character is often defined as a collection of qualities that manifest themselves in a person within a social setting. In many respects, it is a tag bestowed upon a character by others. Examples include happy, sad or noble.
Character traits often refer to a predisposition or a state of consciousness (eg intuitive, wise, pensive).
PERSONALITY refers to the more intellectual, conscious qualities that catalyze the metamorphosis in our characters. It refers to the alteration, removal and addition of various elements of character (eg calm under pressure, resourcefull, witty). Personality is a deeper, intrinsic aspect of character, while a trait is more linked to environment.
Ultimately, every character, and subsequently every story, is an exploration of the human condition. This exploration cements the connection between the storyteller and the audience. As with every human experience, there are three outcomes: positive, neutral and negative.
Freud, a proponent of ‘The Pleasure Principal’, claimed that humans intuitively gravitate towards positive experiences and people. That is our natural predisposition. However, psychologists and anthropologists argue that negative people and experiences are vital for our inner growth, learning and well-being. Mysticists often insists on wounds as a rite of passage as we progress to a higher adult ego state, leaving behind the relative safety of our infantile state. Do we need to suffer to experience happiness? Some argue pleasure and pain are antitheses of the same feeling, much like love and hate.
Neutral characters serve little purpose in a screenplay, other than to service main characters.
Here are some questions you might ask:
- What makes your characters human?
- What are their dreams/ aspirations?
- How have they been shaped by their past, present and anticipated future?
- What are their wounds or scars? Have they healed or are they still bleeding?
- What are their tragic flaws? Are they aware of them? If so, do they want to fix them, or if not, what are the consequences?
- Do they have a mix of positive and negative qualities?
- What are their fears?
- What brings them pleasure?
- How have they/ will be humbled?
- Have they endured estrangement or created it voluntarily to follow their journey?
- What do they want (outer goal)? Do they know how to get it? If so, how? If not, how will they find out?
- What is stopping them?
- What do they need (inner goal)?
- Do they evoke empathy? How do we relate to them?
- How are they defined in terms of the choices they make?
- How do these choices drive the plot?
- What are the economic costs/ rewards of their choices?
- Do they have any quirks or unique features?
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