Character conflict is the basis of an engaging screenplay. What exactly are the causes of conflict? It’s more than two or more characters arguing about a goal. It’s about pushing your characters to their limits to see what they can withstand.
These limits form the basis of the character arcs of good screenwriting. They tie into the motivation of why a character must achieve their goal, and the consequences if they fail. We all know that all stakes must be a matter of life or death. But this shouldn’t always be taken literally. However, a character may feel like they’re dead if they fail.
In many good stories, the stakes may be insignificant in the overall scheme of life. But to the character it affects, it is a matter of life or death. it’s the impact of these stakes that make a story interesting. We’ve all seen a gagillion stories of someone saving the world from an alien invasion. The main characters must be tested to assess their fortitude, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Consider, the case of Barry, a nerdy high school boy, too shy to ask Becky, a girl he likes, to the school dance. Let’s track him, to see how screenwriters can test him:
Barry can’t talk to females he isn’t related to. But he has to ask Becky to the dance if he wants her to go with him. His friends will ridicule him if he doesn’t attend the dance. What can he sacrifice to achieve his goal? Barry can pay his twin brother to ask Becky. What will he ask for in return? Money? A month’s worth of chores? His favorite football card set?
A milder scenario might be that Barry’s friends demand they be present when he asks Becky. They’re expecting her to reject him, but they want to witness Barry’s humiliation. On the other extreme, Barry might blackmail her into going with him. Then he must face the possibility of him being found out. The notion of loss is integral to testing your character’s mettle. How badly do they want something and what will they sacrifice to get it? This is a function of their character.
These are helpful in creating obstacles and complications for Barry. Everything he does causes additional headaches, not only for him but for other people. Again, think about ways to put Barry through the wringer. These complications must be more than a minor inconvenience. They must generate conflict.
Perhaps Barry decides that he must look his best before approaching Becky. He borrows his brother’s best suit without asking, He accidentally stains it and takes it to the dry cleaners. But Barry’s brother needs to wear the suit the next day and he can’t find it. He suspects Barry has borrowed it, but Barry denies it. Then the dry cleaners have lost it and Barry can’t afford to buy his brother a new suit. How will Barry’s brother react? What if Becky finds out and rejects him because she can’t possibly be seen with a loser? Actions have consequences. Make sure they count.
Mistakes, miscalculations, unforced errors. Call them what you want. Either way, they are unwelcome, even though they will make your character stronger. What mistakes can Barry make to make his task more difficult? What if he was so nervous he accidentally calls Becky “Betty” by mistake? What if he steps on her foot as he is tongue-tied? Or he travels to the other side of town to meet Becky after her music class so he can ask her, but she didn’t have a class that day?
Screenwriters can really play with character mistakes. Do they make their characters more determined to succeed, or do they quit? How extreme a mistake will Barry tolerate? It depends on how badly he wants Becky.
Every character has limits to their behavior. Could Barry break the law? What if he finally asks Becky to the dance, but she will only attend if she buys her a new outfit? Barry’s a broke schoolkid. Will he ask for an advance on his allowance, will he ask his parents and friends for a loan, will he steal money from his parents, or will he steal the outfit for Becky?
Whatever you decide, make sure your choices are consistent with your character. The plot dynamics aren’t nearly as entertaining as the character choices in your screenplay.