Good Characters are the key ingredient to creating compelling and interesting stories. Do this properly and you have a potential award winning screenplay, do it badly and it’s tossed in the rejects pile not to be looked at again. No ‘A list’ actor, wants to take on a poor performance, one outstanding script can create a career for new talent and this is what Directors, Actors and Producers are looking for.
Characters in a script have to be different, scripts typically introduce the world before the character. This way you can establish your characters own uniqueness. Maybe like Hamlet, your characters are original thinkers in a world of conventional action. Maybe like Cleopatra they are independant women in a world of domineering men.
Make Them Stand Out
Someone who doens’t stick out, isn’t a character. They have to be outstaning in some way, not part of the furniture. The character must grab the heart and mind of the audience. Why are we humans so fixated on conflict? That’s because the world is bigger than our brains and any tiny conflict we faced thousands of years ago, could have quickly led to our demise. I am talking about evolution and when we were walking around as prehistoric man, cave man or neanderthal, our brains were quickly alert to conflict or danger, as they are today. That’s why we love movies so much! This is in our neural architecture and Neuroscientists have discovered this!
This ancient part of our brains hasn’t changed and we pay more attention to conflict. Life has it’s own conflict but people pay money to go to the theatre or cinema to watch conflict and take part in it, so that the ancient part of our brains can be stimulated. It’s as simple as that. Just how much have we humans learned because of stories past on from eons ago and now in modern times, movies? We learn from Characters because we are characters.
There are two steps to introducing your characters. Introduce the audience to the world and rules of that world, then introduce the characters where they are out of phase or at conflict with the rules of that world, or the world itself. Where they are at conflict with it. This is what Shakespeare is all about and you’ll see that in every play. If you have a story about peace and love, your main character could be a proponent of hate and violence, this would have to be reverse engineered, aka – Shakespeare’s ‘Richard The Third‘. This type of conflict causes the main characters to resist their world consciously or unconsciously. I’ll sometimes talk about ‘Subject Six‘ as an example. Now, Jenny resists that world both consciously and unconsciously. Your main character must either try to change it or be changed by it. This generates the structure and plot – an article that we’ll get into later.
Minor characters share the conflict of the main characters and are there to support your main characters, or to appose them in some way, to help them or hinder them. Think of the mentor character, they bring new ideas or revelation to the main character(s), then they die or are killed at a vital turning sequence in the plot. An example is Professor Brand in Interstellar.
As part of looking at character, let’s first study people, luckily, people have always been the main core in my career, academically and socially. I am a people person and to study character, is to first understand people. Us humans.
What drives most people on the planet? What makes you either do something, or not do it? It’s fear and fear must be the deep force that propels your main character into taking action. It’s the most poweful driver on the planet. You’ll see this as the main element to every single movie ever made. Get these basic principles right, and you’ll have a cognitive movie that connects to the essence of who we are as humans. That’s what story is all about, it’s about character. Even movies about positive things such as love, hope, coming of age and feel good movies, are seated in a primal fear of some kind.
Rudy for example in the Sports genre, wants to show his family that he done it, despite all the odds, despite what people said. His fear is to become what those people around him have presumed- ordinary. “You won’t be able to do it…”
How many times have we heard that line… Rudy wants more, he wants to succeed. Even as babies, when we stopped getting that attention from our parents, we started to walk all of a sudden, everybody cheered and loved it, we had attention mistaken for love, and an anchiever was born. Those who seek succees, seek attention because they want to be appreciated and accepted in society.
Our hopes and desires are essential for us to survive, and we need to stay alive. These primal wants, fears and desires motivate our most extraordinary acts. What causes us to dash into burning buildings? What causes us to jump out of that driving car as it glides down hill out of control? What causes us to face the most dangerous of obstacles? It’s our inner fear, a desire, a fear to not lose either something, or someone that we can’t live without. We do it for ourselves, or those we love and this is what makes the human race what it is, and this is why we sit for a fair percentage of our lives, enthralled by watching movies.
One Big Family
These discussed fears bind the audience cognitively to our characters. If we look at the biological origins of human society, no human ever gets far on their own. To succeed we need to establish relationships of give and take that allow us to pool together our limited neural resources. To take advantage of our different abilities, skills and experiences. Such co-operative relationships are also dangerous because they expose us to being betrayed or exploited in some way or even having our hearts broken. Trust, is another primal thing, paramount to human existence and a major theme of the the recent Planet of The Apes franchise. What’s more eloquent than a subtle cerebral study of fear, trust and the symbiosis of humans and our fellow primates. If we can see the deep fears or a liar or cheat, their emotional vulnerabilities, we still seek to trust them.
This is all about wants and needs, weakness and desires. We seek out what we fear because of a false belief or weakness, which in turn becomes our own desire. The key is to reveal what makes your characters vulnerable, both the protagonist and antagonist. This cannot be done with a one liner! It has to be the subtle under tone of the whole movie. This is why in my opinion, Christopher Nolan is a genius, because he nails this part. He nails complexity.
A line of dialogue is usually enough to revel this weakness, vulnerability or fear, but you must create a vehicle in your story to intensify and expose this characters deep fear. With Subject Six, (spoiler) Jenny has been cultivated literally with a composite of DNA (backstory), she is a cloned human, and her own fear is also the fear of others because she has a genetic symbiosis with them. Theme? Even a cloned human wants meaning in their life, to fit in, and wants to survive. The subject may be synthetic, but her essence and being is very real. This is what the narrative explores. The one thing that Jenny must cling onto is her love for Josh, because she feels this will help her survive as the conflict intensifies. To quote the famous line of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite movies, “Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others…” And there we have perhaps the greatest irony.
Empathy & Sympathy
Empathy is when you feel for a character or person, sympathy is when you feel with a character or person. When we feel sympathy, you feel the characters fear and indentify with the character. If you can engineer that type of connection with your audience and your script, you will have something that stands out from the rest. The secret tip for this blueprint is to write a soliloquy – both a dialogue and a monologue.
A one liner for Subject Six – Jenny.
I am really tired, Josh…
Not literally, but this line although not known initially, encapsulates three life times for Jenny. Something that is paid off in Act Three and at the end of the movie. Jenny is a clone, how has she come to realise she experienced all of this before. As humans, how do we come to realize that we have perhaps lived before?
I don’t want to lose you again…
This is both a monologue and a dialogue, it also reveals more than one fear, the fear of not being able to escape and the fear of losing a loved one. It’s also a line of dialogue from the script and a revelation that this loss has occurred before, therefore Jenny has genetic memory. As a side note, How much science fiction has become actual science fact, from the days of watching Star Trek and seeing cell phone like devices in the 1960’s to actually seeing it as a reality, to the many inventions before their time in movies, and China only a few years ago, actually teleporting a mouse.
So is the case for Subject Six, in decades to come Scientists will discover that we carry genetic memory of not only who we are, what our purpose is and what our strengths and weaknesses are, but also who we once were before. ‘Cloud Atlas‘ is about reincarnation would you believe. In fact becoming spiritual or enlightened is a technique to activate this genetic memory and would you believe that most millionaires in the world have done this, but that’s another topic for Deepak Chopra or Robert Kiyosaki… I talk about this because I have created films and documentaries about such subject matters. An Indian proverb states “we become soiled and dirty throughout countless lifetimes without using truth as a metaphysical soap to clean ourselves”. These are subjects for the soul.
For a classic such as Hamlet, a famous line is “To be or not to be…” is vocalizing an inner conflict to his two deep fears, his inner soul perhaps, one that he’ll become a beast in the name of honor, and two that he’ll become a coward in the name of conscious. What will he do… Even though Hamlet is not the nicest of characters and actually embodies contradiction of character, which is a requirement now for writing “modern” characters, we sympathize with him because we see his fear and character flaw and make it our own. The same is true when Golum from the world famous ‘The Fellowship of the Ring‘ talks in dialogue with his inner self and his darker voice. Professor Tolkien understood that through his lust for the ring and power, and the suffering it led, Golum’s mind became in-stable, weaker, thus allowing through an alter ego. Ask a psychiatrist and they’ll tell you the same thing. Ask a spiritual Guru and they’ll tell you the same thing. One speaks from the head, another speaks from the heart, but the outcome of the cause and effect is the same thing.
The stakes must be high and as I’ve said in other articles, it must be primal, something that’s life threatening. I always write about husband and wife, man and woman, boyfriend and girlfriend, and family, why? Because when those relationships are threatened or there’s a whiff of death as Blake Snyder says, those things are primal. We all have loved ones, so can instantly relate to this fear of loss.
If you can reveal with efficiency what the characters conflict is, in their world, along with their inner fears, desires and needs and create sympathy for that character, you also reveal what’s at stake for them. Not to mention you’ve paced a hundred steps closer to having your script recognized and potentially optioned for development, but your character is now real! Why? Because we’ve just become that character in knowing all of the above. You’ll step into their shoes and imagine their dialogue, their intentions will become clear. Most writers don’t have to wonder about such things, because if they’re born with it, they’ll be sharing metaphorical life experiences, stories that they may not be fully conscious about, and writing almost automatically and subconsciously. I believe this is something Stephen King does best, looking at his stories, they’re multidimensional… paranormal.
Believe it or not, Scientists have discovered that the human brain operates from more than one dimension also. This is why faith and belief are monumental factors for people and those two things actually bend reality. I once (18 years ago) read an interesting line when opening a book, I have a photographic memory so can share with you what it read:
“With the brain being only a few pounds of jelly and fluid flowing with electricity, 99% of everything is fiction”… Simply excellent.
Your Characters Mind, Body and Soul
What education level does your character have? Which one of them is you? What life experience do they have? What have they seen and done? What do they fear and distrust? It’s true as writers our characters are all facets of ourselves or those people around us. We spend decades (or at least I have) watching and listening to people to see how the act and react. I watched decades of classical movies as a child, only to grow up as a problem solver and people person, if people ask me what my profession is, I’ll say I am a writer because that’s the core of my essence. I want to share what I know with the world and all good writers share their knowledge.
As an activity, write down the opening questions in the above paragraph and write two pages of life history for each of your main characters. As Blake Snyder says, “can you give them a limp and an eye patch“? Can you give them a unique voice, trait or personality and make this vocal or visual? Can you make your reader distinguish who each character is by visually planting that image in their mind? If you look back at my previous article, and three sample screenplays, there’s a reason why Milton in Faceless has a visible mole on his face, in fact more than one reason but no spoilers here until you watch the movie. There’s a reason why I’ve purposefully shown Kurt’s burnt hands in Grizzly Summer and naturally, there’s a reason why Jenny in Subject Six, is a beautiful woman.
Survival of the fittest and its energy which is alive on its own comes to mind. Let’s not talk about what your main characters are necessarily wearing, garments of clothing, but who they are. Who have they become from their life experience and why is their story important? Such personalities and traits are only temporary, like clothing, it’s their choices and actions from their inner desires and weaknesses through conflict, that dictate who they really are.
The Characters World
One of the movies that actually inspired Subject Six was my all time favourites Sci-Fi- Gattaca. Well the theme of Subject Six is actually the reverse. Whilst the movie ‘Gattaca’ explores the pinnacle of human DNA, growth and evolution to venture into space, in fact where DNA actually began (the Stars). Subject Six explores the manipulation of that DNA and emotion whilst in space, and a study of humans that spans decades so that humans actually don’t wind up destroying themselves on earth, meddling with matters of godlike proportions- Nuclear Power, which ironically requires the forces of nature to work. Within the story of Infiltration, one of my screenplays, there is a theme of war and the military.
In the narrative of Subject Six, I’ve described palm tree’s, birds and a motif of evolution and survival with the Chimpanzee. The primate is also in there as a visual metaphor for human, clone, ape, machine and a godlike being. There is hierarchy to natural order. I have recently had this script read via Coverfly and whilst it was well received with great feedback, not everybody is tuned in to pick up these themes. That’s also true when watching a movie. Not everybody sees the same film, it’s incredibly subjective. It’s by no accident that the midpoint reveal in Subject Six and Infiltration is the audience discovering Jenny was taken during 1954. This is why structure and character have to flow as the same thing in a well told story. When Jenny realizes, so does the audience.
Don’t Talk For Your Characters
We’ll cover this in more detail in the Dialogue article, but don’t speak for your characters. Don’t make them say lines because you want to say them or becuase you think it sounds good or needs to be in there. Usually it doesn’t. There is a process here and if you’re itching to write a story about a particular character, it’s about them and not you. You have to be the first person who makes your character real, bringing them into the world. Just look around, everything in the room where you are sitting has come from someone’s imagination, from nothing, comes everything.
The Components of Character Arc
Let’s Look at a few movies and my description:
Tootsie – “A man who has no respect for women realizes he’s going to have to become one, otherwise he has no career as an actor”.
Would it surprise you if this likely motivated the creation of Mrs Doubtfire?
Mrs Doubtfire – “A voice actor facing divorce with a comical look on life has to play the role of an older wiser woman, otherwise he’s prohibited from spending more time with his children”.
Finding Nemo – “a small clown fish child, scarred at birth with the loss of his mother, traverses the entire Pacific Ocean to return safely to his father”.
Home Alone – “a pre-teen mischievous wealthy child prefers his own company when left home alone. He learns the value of family only in his own solace and fights off two villains who are trying to break into his home”.
The Missing – “An aging man who left his daughter when a child, preferring to take on the life of a native Indian has to now save his grand daughter from female trafficking. She’s been abducted by native Indians”.
Interstellar – “A pioneer of exploration, and ordinary farmer leaves his family and young daughter in the attempt to save humans from a potential threat in space, only to outlive his daughter and to never return with them in his eternity”.
Inception – “A man who tested a mind altering technique called Inception on his wife which led to her death, has to use Inception again to secure a chance of seeing his children in the future”.
Can you see any character arc here? Is this formulaic and let me guess, if you’re not optimistic, you’re thinking, well life’s NOT like this. Well I can tell you that IT IS. You’d be shocked to learn that English Literature was my weakest subject in school, I was a quiet kid that often had his head in the clouds, and in Teacher talk, that means “you’re dumb” another movie ‘Forrest Gump‘ comes to mind. Now, I didn’t start off in crutches, but my lack of desire to raise my voice or the confidence to speak up and perhaps my ethnic background in the 90’s, was my crutches.
My predicted Grade for Language and Literature was a ‘D’, because in the UK we have tiers, and I was on the lower tier, guess why? Because I didn’t talk a lot. My English teacher didn’t even know I was half way through writing a 200 page novel at the age of 16, which I lost tragically, or someone lost for me, but that’s another story, ironically the title of the story was ‘Tragedy’. Well to cut a long story shorter, I got a ‘B’ in English Literature and a ‘C’ in English language. That wasn’t possible because I was on the lower tier. I spoke to my tutor on the up beat results day after getting all A-C’s in my exams. Revision and Remembering, (that can’t be hard for someone with a near photographic memory I thought)… in thus using the formula was the way to success. My tutor was an English and Drama teacher and she called me “a brilliant student“. The examination board marked my literature paper three times, and two separate people marked it as a ‘B’.
Now I wasn’t exactly a Ramanujan of the mid 90’s, this was somewhat basic stuff, but it was a formula that worked! My English teacher told me what two pieces of writing to compare and write about, Well, I didn’t do that because I didn’t connect with those stories, instead I chose separate pieces and compared the contrast between a book about war, and another story about a peaceful day out. The comparison was in the contrast and I was analyzing the writer and why he chose to write that material and chapter and it secured me a higher mark. Even though I lost my 200 page novel in 1996, it made me see material through the writers eyes because I had become one myself.
What’s the moral here? I took my weakest subject and made it into one of my strongest! That also has to be the same as your character arc. Each logline outlines the character desire, weakness, false belief, fear or inner wound, and the story tells the rest in how the character faces each obstacle until they come into essence.
The way you form your story, plan it up and write it, will define the type of message it conveys. Some great writers such as Oliver Stone, who writes great Characters, another favourite Such as Sam Raime, writes great Thematic films. Ron Howard writes great heartfelt emotional movies, and no other than Christopher Nolan focuses on the cognitive effect, what you think and feel in the final stages of the movie. I’d hazard a guess that Christopher Nolan particularly loves writing Act Three.
They order in which you think about your movie, whether the character, the setting, the world, the central idea, the themes will govern and dictate what type of movie comes to life on the screen, with Direction from the Director and Producers of course. How do you go about writing your movie? Are you fixated on the idea? Are you fixated on the character? The story? The message it conveys? Or are you fixated on the audience? I am no longer talking about the structure but the inception of the story, how did it come about? Belora, my published novel which I am working on for an animation came to me visually whilst I was in the middle of a serious fever. In fact some of the very characters in that story exhibit visions and hallucinations before they set out on their outer quest, which is actually an inner journey of self discovery.
One Film Maker from an interview I was watching recently said “make it about the moral, the message”, this way your story now carries the weight of something greater. I recently watched an epic movie, a contained one rather, but with an epic message. ‘A Simple Plan‘, exploring the themes of greed and obsession, riddled with realistic irony. The writer (Scott B. Smith) must have thought about a compelling moral and message first, one that he could portray through strong characters. No wonder the movie won Academy awards. If I was to give it flipped view logline after watching the movie, it would be “an established accountant struggles to manage the hidden wealth of millions found in a crashed aeroplane, and loses not only a friend and brother in the chains of greed, but also his soul”.
Don’t kill your imagination with assumptions, ideals, illusions and stereotypes, show something authentic. There’s even been a movie made about imagination- my childhood favourite- ‘The Never Ending Story‘. Why is this story important to you and how can you explore it by writing the most compelling character? Create those monologues and pages of descriptions and you’ll be on the way to writing amazing characters. As I’ve said before, this is a process and if you’ve identified the conflict and fears of your characters, their weakness, desires and flaws, all of this that will shape their dialogue, even choice of words, intentions and subtext.
Thoughts become words and words become actions, therefore there must be an interesting play between the action beats and dialogue beats. That’s something that I am studying at the moment. We’ll discuss vocabulary and rythms of speech in the dialogue article, but again, it’s still linked to the characters. When someone says “the dialogue isn’t that great”, what does that actually mean? It means you haven’t given your character a unique voice. Either their dialogue doesn’t reveal their character, personality, desires, fears and thoughts, it can also mean that the dialogue has no real purpose because these things haven’t been identified, which means dialogue and character isn’t your only problem. You have no real story here. The dialogue MUST NOT be random or without purpose. I am not a huge Tarantino fan, but even when they’re talking about hamburgers and food in Pulp Fiction, it’s revealing their inner character during the beats of action and dialogue. The style of the genre and movie warrants such characters and dialogue.
Character Driven Story
I hate to admit it, but when writing Grizzly Summer (my third screenplay), the who, or character was the last thing I had in mind. I didn’t think of Kurt or Kerry, just sort of developed them along the way, and if you read the first through to third draft of the script, you’ll notice it. It’s still in working progress. I thought of the concept of a primal theme and trafficking in human organs after watching this as a serious global problem, there it was, I began to write. The main elements to Grizzly Summer were the contrast between a beautiful untouched natural location in Utah and a gang of relentless killers hellbent on making millions by killing people and selling their organs. Natural order, against human chaos. Another motivation for Grizzly Summer was Ron Howard’s ‘The Missing‘, another “up there” Gary Tao movie.
Many great movies have been motivated by great characters and other movies. I know for example the ignorance and fear element in ‘Home Alone‘s “Old Man Marley“, was inspired by the scenes in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ and the fear that Jem had for Boo Radley. You develop an eye to associate these things in movie when you study them hard enough over time. You’ll be surprised that a lot of movie Directors and Producers nowadays think of the cast size and location before they even read a script. In fact I was approached by a Director and Producer several months ago who wanted me to adapt my quarter finalist script for a story based on Mars. I adapted a treatment, submitted it and have never heard from him since. In the process I came up with a great story idea for a Mars Sci-Fi and it’s on the list to write, along with several others.
Most film makers think of the restrictions of their budget. Will these make great movies? I doubt it. Movie and Character is about passion, and here you have the movies that withstand the test of time. The all time greats, the classics. Why is it when you go to drama school or arts and literature, you’re told to study the classics. Because all the godlike detail and passion is in the original works, its substance is aligned with the highest of thought power and creative intellect. It’s ironic that as our technology develops, the power of the mind may actually be on a slippery slope downhill, where are the Tesla’s and Newton’s of today, where are the Einstein’s and Ramanujan’s? In natural laws and physics, all things along entropy end in destruction. “Things will never be as great as they were”.
Grizzly Summer is an action central, gritty action thriller, whilst Subject Six and Faceless are both Character Driven Stories, along with Demetri, The Professor– another new movie I am currently writing. Subject Six and Faceless were designed with the main protagonists in mind, therefore the plot and story revolves around the actions and developments of these characters as they progress through the story. Faceless is extremely low budget and contained, whilst Subject Six is high concept and high budget. They are both Drama’s.
The key to writing a successful Character driven story, one that’s worthy of a few accolades in major competitions and great readers feedback and a “consider” from a Producer, is to make your main character the main focus in the story. You do this by designing your character and their world well and by keeping it contained. Explore a simple idea, but all the dimensions of that idea. Make your characters real, give them desires and fears, make them have conflict, and real voices and keep ratcheting up that conflict until your character changes from a caterpillar to a butterfly, from limitation, comes genius. Make your audience discover something amazing, along with your main character in their story. This is a simple recipe for success. I cannot stress enough how much value Robert McKee’s Story will provide. I hope this article has given you a good starting point for writing great characters. Have fun writing and don’t be too serious about it, but if you can, think like your characters!