CharacterCharacters are modeled on people. A writer, being a person who knows other persons, should theoretically have an innate understanding of the mechanics of personality and social interaction; which they do, yet if this were all it took, sociologists should be great screenwriters. The process of creating character is not that straightforward.

First, let me throw out a somewhat imprecise working definition of a screenplay character:

  • character: an artificial, aesthetic construct that simulates a human life for the purpose of entertainment, or for the exploration of dramatic, moral, or aesthetic issues.

My use above of the words artificial and simulate is extremely important. It immediately frees you, the writer, from the onerous task of having to depict boring real-life behavior such as teeth-brushing, toilet-flushing, and the 45-minute bus ride to work that morning. A character is not a real person, it is a simulation of a person. Do not ever confuse the two. Even in films based upon actual people are the characters simulacra.

The next part of my definition states the writer’s reasons for utilization of a character: “for the purpose of entertainment, or for the exploration of dramatic, moral, or aesthetic issues.” In other words, a character exists as a means for you to further your personal or artistic agendas as a creator of a particular work. A character, then, is a vehicle for ideas expressed through the means of human behavior.

Think about what this definition means to you, the writer; it states, very plainly, that in order to create a character, that you must first begin with what you want to say. Now that’s easy, isn’t it?

Selecting Your Vehicle

Although the standard dictionary definition of “character” is useless for our purposes, it does contain a very important etymological seed; “fr. L character mark, distinctive quality.” This is a great clue for how to sequence the first base-pairs of a character’s DNA in your home genetics lab.

What makes your character different from everybody else, makes them stand out in a crowd? What is the single, defining, overriding, trait of your character? We’re not aiming for depth yet, simply functionality. Some examples:

Indecisive Hamlet Hamlet
Calculating Madame de Merteuil Dangerous Liaisons
Headstrong Luke Skywalker Star Wars
Determined Scarlett O’Hara Gone With the Wind
Self-Interested Rick Casablanca

As you can see, this is the essential, archetypal overview of these characters. Indeed, certain characters never rise above their archetypes, such as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (or his modern counterpart C-3PO in Star Wars).

Your main character’s defining trait should be considered in light of the demands of your story. One of the best kinds of traits you can give a character is one that will create the maximum amount of conflict given the circumstances. For example, strictly from a perspective of dramatic conflict, who would you rather see have the very first formal contact with space aliens–a seasoned diplomat, or a loud-mouthed insensitive jerk? Or who would you rather see try to find the perfect mate via a series of blind dates–a suave seducer, or a bumbling, slovenly crackpot who constantly spouts theories of government mind-control? Conflict is drama.

Conflict should be as near to life-threatening as possible. Not that all films are about life-or-death struggles, but a character’s way of life should truly be in danger. This can mean actual threat of death, but also might be their lifestyle, their personality, their old behavior patterns, their sense of worth, their integrity, or their psyche. A definite danger to this previous way of living is introduced into the story, and the character must act. Often, this danger emanates directly from the main character, because either their actions or behavior have created a problem, or the problem is actually an active desire to change their life or themselves.

The other important story considerations are: the main character’s job or function, the antagonist or forces of antagonism, the main story conflict, and the main character’s transformational arc. When these considerations are added together with the character’s defining trait, your result will be the 25-words-or-less definition of your story, a log line.

  • A cynically self-interested nightclub owner must decide whether to risk helping a former flame on the run from the Nazis. (Casablanca)
  • A headstrong farm-boy must learn to become a warrior in order to join a galactic rebellion against an evil empire. (Star Wars)
  • A stubborn, over-the-hill former gunfighter again straps on his pistols to try to make a living, but must contend with a sadistic small-town sheriff. (Unforgiven)

Notice the format: main character trait + main character function, followed by conflict + antagonist (or vice-versa).

As you will hear time and again in this business, screenplays are structure. Thus, unsurprisingly, characters are also part of structure. The above exercise in writing a log line creates a beginning, middle, and end for your story, thus suggests a very important piece of your main character; their transformational arc. The arc, for short, is very simply the journey of change that your character experiences by partaking in the story.

To decide your character’s arc, you must first decide the outcome of your story. Outcome can be judged by two sets of criteria: 1) success/failure 2) desirable/undesirable. Pick one from each category, and you get four possible endings.

  • desirable success: The basic happy ending, in which the main character is rewarded, the bad guys punished, and the day is saved. (The Wizard of Oz, Sleepless in Seattle, Star Wars)
  • undesirable failure: Tragedy. A tale of woe, misery, or death, in which the protagonist either falls from grace, or had a fatal flaw to begin with. (Titanic, Amadeus, An American Werewolf in London)
  • desirable failure: In which the protagonist didn’t get what they wanted, but learned a valuable lesson or inadvertently gained a better reward in the process. (Risky Business, Clockwork Orange, Thelma & Louise)
  • undesirable success: in which the protagonist got what they wanted, but sacrificed a valuable part of themselves in the process; i.e.their soul, their loved one, their life. (The Godfather, Unforgiven, Bulworth)

Two important points; protagonist, remember, means “main character” and is not necessarily always synonymous with “hero.” Also, whether an outcome is desirable or undesirable is defined from the protagonist’s point of view–not yours or the audience’s.

If you approach your character and structure simultaneously, not only do you solve two problems at once, but you get an integration of the two from the beginning.

Driving the Vehicle

Great characters are reverse-engineered from function. Form follows function, not vice-versa. Once you have completed your log line, you will have a good idea of what your function needs to be. In this case, function is the specific character trait or traits that will create the maximum dramatic conflict during the circumstances of the story, yet also be suited to carry the story’s momentum.

Momentum is the driving force of the story, the gasoline in the car, the propelling inevitability that moves events forward. Without it, you don’t have drama, and you don’t have a screenplay.

Where does it come from? Character, of course.

A story only has momentum when a protagonist cares about something. Their prime care or concern is their goal. Selection of this goal is one of the most important decisions you can make. It affects everything in the story. It is the story.

To create maximum conflict, to drive the story inexorably forward, to raise story tension to its highest level, the attainment of this goal must be imperative (please burn that last word into your brain). If a goal is not imperative, the story will fall flat. Cars will go unchased. Guns will go unfired. Victims will go unkilled. Dishes will go unwashed. All because you, God of your written universe, didn’t give your characters a good enough reason to act–and act right now. What actually often happens is that a screenwriter will write scenes in which characters will sit around discussing what to do next instead of doing it.

There is more than one kind of goal necessary if a story is to have depth. Characters can actually have three kinds of goals, and dimensional characters have all three. They are:

  • outer goal
  • inner goal
  • superobjective

Most modern, Hollywood films are very firmly focused in the realm of the outer goal. This is what every action film is about attaining. The outer goal is simply the goal upon which the physical, external motion of the story is focused upon, and is typically the domain of the plot. An outer goal is always about getting or achieving a specific object or result.

The inner goal is the psychological or emotional need of the main character. Often they themselves are not aware that they have this goal, but whether conscious or subconscious, it is a desire that drives their behavior. This kind of goal is often developed or explored via character relationships and behavior within the domain of the subplot. Although in many European or art-house films, this goal is contained within the plot.

An excellent dramatic choice is to have conflicting inner and outer goals. A great example is Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. His outer goal is to manipulate the system so that he has opportunity to escape. But his inner goal is wonderfully contradictory; to mentor FBI agent Clarice Starling. A nurturing psychopath–now that’s a memorable character!

The superobjective is what the character wants to achieve by reaching their goal (whether inner or outer). The disclosure of superobjectives in films has become clunky, and often parodied, as in a moment from the Simpsons cartoon that showed a clip from a fictional TV cop-show called McBain. McBain’s new partner tells him that when he retires in a few days, he wants to buy a boat and sail around the world (the most clichéd superobjective possible). He is immediately shot, and McBain, in anguish, yells out, “Nooooooooooo!!!” Yet nowhere is it carved into stone that a character must speak their superobjective aloud. Often it will be evident simply through their actions what it is they are working towards. Typically, resolution scenes following the climax reveal that the character has either now reached their superobjective, or that having reached their story goals, they are now free to pursue it. If a story outcome is of one of the two varieties of failure, then the superobjective is now unattainable (which reinforces the tragic aspect) or no longer desirable (because the main character has changed).

At the end of Body Heat, femme fatale Matty is shown sipping drinks on an isolated tropical beach. Luke receives a medal at the end of Star Wars–the ultimate acknowledgement of his newfound “hero” status. In Thelma & Louise, the two protagonists die and the end of their journey, yet achieve their superobjective, which is true, unfettered liberation.

Even it the audience never knows what the character wants out of life, you, the writer, must know. A character’s superobjective is the driving force behind both their inner and outer goals. The superobjective is the dream beyond the immediate story goals.

What is Dorothy’s superobjective in The Wizard of Oz? Her outer goal is to get home. Her inner goal is essentially to mature. All of the traits possessed by her companions, such as courage, heart, and wisdom, are actually the traits that Dorothy herself learns on the road to Oz. But her superobjective is to have family, which is why the comrades she accumulates on her journey are the mirror images of her friends and family back home. Home represents family, but it is her newfound maturity that allows her to appreciate it. The three goals very neatly tie together.

These basic character components of aesthetic idea, defining trait, and imperative goals fuse together to produce a storyline based upon character conflict. To understand the conflict through character is to understand the direction of your story.

In the next section, you will see how to use these basic elements as primary ingredients to flesh out a believable personality for your main character.

The Alchemist’s Paradox

The philosopher’s stone was the holy grail of alchemy. The stone was the perfect element, and had the power to transform other elements; specifically, it was thought to be able to turn lead into gold. To successfully make the stone, an alchemist needed to fuse the proper mixture of chemicals that represented the four basic elements; fire, water, air, and earth–a contradictory and paradoxical blend.

This alchemist’s paradox is analogous to the design of a great character.

Behavioral contradictions are realistic, create immediate inner and outer conflict, dimensionalize your character and brand them as unique. When you define the precise proportion of conflicting elements within your character, you turn the lead of cliched two-dimensionality into the gold of living, breathing three-dimensionality. The greater these conflicts, the greater your drama, thus the more powerful your story.

An excellent example of warring forces at work within a character is visible in the main character of Tootsie, Michael Dorsey.

Character Study: Michael Dorsey

  • outer goal: to get acting work
    Michael has been unable to get steady work, particularly because of his abrasive personality. This goal is what motivates him to the desperate, last-ditch act of dressing as a woman.
  • inner goal: to get Julie to love him
    The circumstances of Michael’s female masquerade prevent him from revealing to anybody that he is really a man. He is smitten with Julie, a fellow soap opera star, the moment he sees her, and as he falls further in love with her, he is motivated toward ever riskier attempts at getting close to her.
  • superobjective: to put on his housemate’s play
    Michael wants to finance and star in the production of his housemate’s work, Back to Love Canal. This the other reason he takes the soap opera job in the first place.

Personality & Background: Michael is an extremely opinionated, self-assured, award-winning actor. He believes in his own abilities, and conversely, takes the stance that nobody else knows what they’re doing. Michael has been out of work for a long time, and although he teaches acting to a number of appreciative students, he is forced to support himself through low-paying restaurant work. This, among other things, makes him extremely frustrated, even desperate. At this point in his life, he feels that he should be more successful, and although willing to do almost anything in order to further his career, he balks at the inadequacies of others, and is thus often loses potential jobs by arguing with directors. Because he always believes he is right, Michael has a great need to control everyone and everything in his life. He can be extremely coercive, even psychologically bullying, but because he generally has the best of intentions, his friends take it in stride. He is also extremely resourceful and intelligent, and is gutsy enough to take extreme risks.

The above is just the short version of the basic information you need to assemble about your characters.

Michael’s goals do not, on first glance, seem contradictory–our desired framework. Yet, due to the circumstances of the story, they become so. When Michael lands the soap opera job via his alter-ego Dorothy Michaels, he also meets Julie. These two goal-related circumstances happen right at the end of the first act. Suddenly, his original goal, work, is complicated by an additional goal, love. Act II is now about the ways in which Michael tries to reconcile these two conflicting goals. He is locked on course, and headed for trouble; conflict, drama, and comedy ensue.

Note that neither of Michael’s goals has anything to do with dressing as a woman. That action is made in response to his needs, the story’s circumstances, and directed via Michael’s unusual personality. Not every character would make the decisions that Michael does. To reiterate:

need + circumstance + personality = action

  • need: This relates to the goal, in that it is a step taken toward the goal. Needs change moment to moment, according to the next two conditions.
  • circumstance: The given circumstances can both dictate limitations to a character’s response, and suggest new possibilities for their actions. In drama, unusual behavior is produced in response to extraordinary situations. Life-and-death decisions, for example, are not the domain of the ordinary.
  • personality: This is the fusion of the character’s goals with their life experiences previous to the circumstances of the story.
  • action: A concrete, goal-oriented character behavior aimed at producing a specific result. An action is what a character does in order to get what they want or need in a given moment. Characters change their actions according to both circumstance and the effectiveness of previous actions (i.e. learned behavior). Characters use actions like fencing swords to duel for the success of their respective goals. These repeated duels throughout the body of a story create drama. From the dramatic perspective, actions should be framed as infinitive verbs. Examples: to challenge, to flaunt, to hide, to destroy, to flirt, to torment.

Despite my formula above, please do not begin to think of characters in terms of mathematics! We’re talking here about simulating people, not machines. I merely write it out in such a format so that you will begin to see that a character and their behavior is the sum of various ingredients, and if you leave certain pieces out, you are not going to have a full total.

The Contradictory Personality

The easiest way to create character contradictions is really quite simple; just define who they are, then add the opposite or the unexpected. A psychologist who compulsively bites his nails. A garbageman who quotes poetry. A priest who strips for private parties. A drug dealer who gives all of his ill-gotten profits to charity.

Examples of this approach are rife in films: An assassin who nurtures a 12-year-old girl (The Professional); A pornographer who becomes a defender of the First Amendment (The People vs. Larry Flynt); A gentle boy with dangerously lethal fingers (Edward Scissorhands); A frightening creature with a kind heart (Beauty and the Beast).

The beauty of using this trick is that by fusing such opposite behaviors, you then must justify why and how a person could reconcile such different aspects of themselves. In doing so, you will need to come up with a clever biography and history that adequately explains such an unusual person, and will thus end up creating many wonderful and elaborate details that will spice up your character even further.

The Weak Spot

If you remember the legend of Achilles, you know that he was an invincible warrior who had a weak spot–his heel. That one tiny, unprotected area was where he was finally mortally wounded. Always give your characters an Achilles heel. If they are vulnerable, it increases their level of risk when participating in the story. It also makes them seem more human. Vulnerability also translates into audience sympathy, and that sympathy is one of the most important feelings that you want to cultivate in an audience for your characters.

When you think of Superman, you might also think of Kryptonite, the one thing that can harm him. When you think of Indiana Jones, you might remember his little phobia of snakes. Those are physical vulnerabilities, and are simple, straightforward complications for such characters. Yet for such strong heroes to have such trivial weaknesses seems paradoxical. Another kind of physical vulnerability is simply a person close to the protagonist–wife, lover, friend–whom the bad guy can threaten or use as bait to trap the hero.

A much more interesting approach is to have a psychological vulnerability. Often, this vulnerability ties directly to the character’s defining trait. In fact, with many characters, their strength is also their weakness. I already mentioned exactly this kind of weakness in Michael Dorsey, whose stubbornness helps him as much as hurts him. In Amadeus, Mozart’s drive to create, which makes him a great musician, finally kills him. Macbeth’s ambition gains and loses him everything.

The Big Squeeze

Drama involves suffering on the part of your characters. Being a writer is often quite a sadistic exercise, akin to torturing ants with a magnifying glass. That magnifying glass is conflict.

But part of the fun is not only in creating circumstances under which the character experiences dramatic torment, but creating characters who are not only willing, but eager to be tormented! This does not means that you need to introduce us to disturbed masochists, but that you need to give your characters traits and goals that are going to keep them deeply involved in the story’s conflict. If we look back at Michael Dorsey’s character sketch, we see that his defining trait is stubbornness. It’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it means he’s persistent; on the other hand, if he is wrong about an issue, it means that it takes him a long time to realize his error. It also means built-in conflict.

A look at Michael’s other traits reveal talent and intelligence. The selection of these two traits is important, because an important consideration for main characters is often ability. A character must have skills that allow them to navigate the treacherous course of the story. If they lack ability, then they may not have what it takes to get to the end of the road. Characters who are good at what they do are the standard for Hollywood star vehicles. Stars generally hate to play losers. Not that this should limit you as a writer, but you need to be aware of mainstream versus independent standards.

There are actors like Nicholas Cage who play both side of the fence; witness his geeky character in The Rock versus his award-winning performance as a self-destructive alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. Which kind of film do you want to write? If you are writing a slam-bang action film or a screwball comedy, then your most important decisions are going to be your selection of the main character’s defining characteristic, plus their inner and outer goals. If you are writing a character piece, the you are going to have to flesh out their biographical details. These details are going to be the source of your character’s personality.

The squeeze also gives you a chance to reveal character traits that don’t normally manifest. It is often said that true character is revealed under pressure. How your characters react to their unusual and/or stressful circumstances is a great chance for you to insert contradictory or unexpected reactions. You may also show that a character’s real defining trait only manifests under pressure. In The Edge, after the a group of men crash in the Alaskan wilderness, Anthony Hopkins’ character shows himself to be resourceful and cool-headed, while the other men fall apart or succumb to the elements one by one. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne seems like a weak man destined to be victimized, but proves time and again to have a thoughtful, clever, and subtle intellect that allows him to survive and even thrive in prison.

When you design a character, you must balance them with a blend of good and bad traits. A large part of a story’s exploration is an examination of the teetering scale of character; in one scene, a good trait prevails, in the next, a bad one wins out. If by the end of the story, their good traits outweigh their bad, the story has a happy resolution. If the bad traits win, the result is tragedy.

Perfect heroes are not only unrealistic, but unforgivably boring. If someone is perfect, then what do they have to learn? Layer your characters with justified contradictions, bad habits, obsessions, and paradoxical traits. The result will be an interesting and engaging person who holds our attention, creates conflict, and who we remember long after a film is over.

The Basic Outline Screenwriting Essentials Questionnaire