Let’s get into some deep character work here to make your screenplays really stand out.
Every screenwriter understands the concept of morality. It is an internal guidance systems that shapes your characters life direction.
Everyone has an internal moral compass which drives their beliefs and actions. This helps screenwriters define their characters as either GOOD or BAD. But film characters aren’t so basic, are they? They generally have a predominantly good or bad moral code.
What happens when certain characters in your film script occupy the gray moral area and they don’t skew towards the really good or really bad? Sometimes they are called anti-heroes. Sometimes they are called villains. Sometimes they are labeled antagonists. Neither of these terms does them justice.
Every script writer knows what is right or wrong. But why do some characters deliberately choose the wrong path? It’s not that they don’t any better. Are they bad?Perhaps. A more likely explanation is that they are manifesting their inner turmoil through a flawed decision making process. Understanding the concept of a moral compass greatly enhances screenwriters’ ability to enrich our characters and make them more enticing roles that actors crave.
What defines a moral compass?
Dignity is dependent on how other’s perceive and treat a character. It is independent of how characters see themselves. A character with dignity feels valued, revered and respected and acts accordingly. They expect a certain level of treatment. When a character receives undignified treatment, they often react with poor choices and bad behavior.
Consider how to push your desperate characters such as mistreated prisoners, domestic violence sufferers and abuse victims into deeply flawed acts through mistreatment.
This is the counter balance to dignity. Self esteem refers to how characters perceive their own worth and how they expect to be treated. If they have low self esteem, they will act badly, regardless of how good or bad they are treated by others. A high self esteem will often render a character unable to tolerate anything less.
This relates to physical health and spiritual health.
PHYSICAL HEALTH is easy to correlate to your character’s moral compass. A hiker out in the forest or someone who regularly exercises at the gym tends to make better and more disciplined life choices. They value their bodies. Consider the choices of characters who don’t value and respect their bodies. They often don’t value other people either.
SPIRITUAL HEALTH is less easily defined. It can relate to one’s religion and the extent to which they follow (or are compelled to follow) it. A deeply religious community leaves little room for self-expression or questioning of a code of conduct. Think about how a free thinker might behave in such regimented communities. Or how a deeply spiritual person might behave in a cruel, dog eat dog world.
We are all social creatures, even the loners, weirdos and retiring types who need more alone time than others. Our degree of social interactions shape our overall sense of life satisfaction, worth, engagement, happiness and general well-being.
But what does too much or too little social interaction reveal about your characters? Are the ones that over interact insecure, needy and the ones that under interact lonely, disenfranchised or unhappy? Consider the fabulous fat friend character who is always the center of attention at parties and The Grinch who feels lonely and misunderstood.
SELFISHNESS vs SELFLESSNESS
Is being selfish a character flaw? Or is it an expression of self-preservation and statement of identity? Some philosophies consider selfishness as a mortal sin and we should always strive to serve others altruistically. Which is the favorable state and under what circumstances do characters shift to the extremes?
The answer has a lot to do with self esteem. An extremely selfish person is either extremely egotistical (a symptom of poor self esteem). Otherwise they may simply be too immature or emotionally unaware to realize that their needs aren’t the only ones that need to be met. Consider the Sheldon Coopers of the world who believe the world revolves around them.
Selflessness is often associated with sages, elders, mentors and holders of great wisdom. They have a achieved a level of self-acceptance, knowledge and identity that they are willing to put the needs of others before their own. Okay, there doesn’t need to be prophecy in your screenplay to demonstrate this. It could simply be the best friend. buddy character that tolerates the crap the badly-behaved partner dishes out. They are nurturing, comforting and act as catalysts and sounding boards for the lesser characters to find the right choices for their dilemmas.
This is the sign of a perfect character who strives to do the right thing. There are several components of integrity.
HONESTY is the ability to tell the truth. This was made the central theme of LIAR LIAR. What if your character tells white lies to spare someone’s feelings? Or bold lies to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities?
PURPOSE is simply acting with intention. When a flawed character misbehaves are they craving attention, validation or simply acting according to expectation. Few characters simply act out for no reason at all.
RELIABLE means they consistently deliver on their promises.
So there you have it fellow screenwriters. Although your characters’ compasses are ideally leading them towards the North Star, it is not always the richest and most complex option for them.