I’ve written several articles on how to construct balanced, fleshed-out characters in your screenplay. You pose a series of questions relating to their physical, emotional, spiritual and socio-economic status. What are their wants and needs? What are their superficial and emotional goals in the story? How do they interact with the other characters?
These questions are useful in your first character build; character 1.0 if you will. However, these constructs generally define how a character is perceived by others, more than how they perceive themselves.
The latter needs to be explored further to elevate your screenwriting.
The key question every character asks themselves is WHO AM I? Indeed, this is a loaded questions for screenwriters, but a necessary one nonetheless. Identity is a question of self perception.
It provides pride, validation, grounding and certainty. Identity extends beyond personality traits into cognitive, emotional and spiritual processes. Read that again because it’s a lot to take in.
Characters without a well-defined identity suffer fear, alienation and isolation.
Identity begins with the notion of TRIBE. Humanity is composed of thousands of tribes. They can act as self contained units, in co-operation with, or in opposition to, other tribes.
Your main character must understand where they fit in to their tribes and their prescribed roles within them. Their tribe gives each character a sense of value, belonging, acceptance, safety and security. Tribes are brotherhoods or sisterhoods where individuals are understood and appreciated.
Tribes are close-knit, functional communities based on a reasonably fixed set of shared values, beliefs and goals. Some of these are chosen while others are chosen for each character. There is some latitude for individualism, but mainly function on collectivism.
Culture is a more fluid concoction of age old heritage, customs and traditions. It relates to culinary, entertainment, artistic, behavioral and intellectual pursuits. Culture also dictates accepted social, political and professional behaviors and beliefs.
Many films explore both mainstream and underground cultures. These can range from life in a big city, or in a particular profession, to the skating, car racing, or music world.
Much of the thematic elements of your screenwriting can be drawn from your main character’s cultural environs.
Truths are defined as information that can either be absolutely verified as correct (fixed truth), or deemed so due to overwhelming evidence (assumptive truth.) Your main character must live with fixed truths within their tribe such as who is an enemy, who is a criminal and who is the leader of the tribe.
A flexible truth is often a perception. This can range from challenging established laws and assumptions, to outright lies, such as the earth is flat.
These aspects of character definition can really enhance your screenwriting by helping you better track your character’s internal arc. This is deeper than chasing a superficial goal such as passing the bar exam or winning that promotion. They resonate on a deeper emotional level.
As a screenwriter, don’t try to force-feed all of these tenets into your character arc. Are they in search of their true identity, their calling or their destiny? This is often the stuff of superhero movies.
Do they want to enter their current tribe and enter a new one that better fits their aspirations? Coming of age films frequently address such questions.
Cultural goals are less genre specific. Are you writing a drama where your main character wants to leave their small town and make it in the big city? It could be a musical where a group wants to win a singing/ dancing contest.
Your main character must be in search of some greater truth to fully resolve their journey on a satisfying level. They could be searching for a higher meaning to their situation, the answer to a riddle, or confirmation/ denial of a belief system.
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