The Screenwriter's Column

Creating Characters Who Work for You, Not Against You

By Linda Cowgill

One of the hardest concepts for new screenwriters to master is that of the active protagonist. Passive protagonists populate the pages of countless screenplays. As a screenplay consultant, I see this all the time. But don't just take my word on it. According to a reader friend of mine who's read over a 1,000 scripts for Chris Columbus's production company 1492, it's the single most common mistake among produced screenwriters and novices alike. Even writers who are able to reach the highest echelons of the studio system are guilty of this problem. 

A passive protagonist can hold a reader's interest for a while, but as the plot plods along with the protagonist moving from scene to scene with seemingly no real aim, a story loses tension and momentum, and the audience loses interest.

Beginning writers often confuse a strong protagonist with a complicated biography. Then they tell the audience about their characters in dialogue instead of showing them in action. Even when they pay heed to the old screenwriting adage "Show, don't tell," its true meaning is lost on them. They give information in flashbacks, or in scenes where the character "shows" the audience something about the character's back-story. Characters may have interesting histories, but this isn't what interests the audience. The audience doesn't want to hear the story; they want to see it. They want characters who act and make things happen. And they want to see characters with Character. What this means is that the strength of a character's personality (that's Character with a capital "C") is tested and demonstrated by the conflict of the story.

Drama needs action and conflict, not only to create tension and momentum to hold the audience's attention, but also to test the characters. Their actions under duress demonstrate who the characters really are -- based in their decisions and. This, actually, is what really interests the movie-going public.

Creating Strong Characters

How do we create an active protagonist or other main characters? The simple answer is that they must have something they want and will struggle for. It must be important to the character.

A general error of beginners is to give the protagonist a want that's too broad and abstract. "My character wants love," my students frequently say to me. The trouble is that you can't plot this out if we don't know what "love" means to the protagonist. Romeo wants Juliet, and she represents love in the play. Romeo's desire for Juliet makes him active, as he tries to be with her, despite the conflict between their families.

Specific desires make the abstract real. The audience understands why characters do what they do for their goals, as the characters drive the action because of them. When the want is too abstract, the audience struggles to understand the characters' actions, and usually gives up on them.

Students sometimes complain that this stress on the "want" makes a plot flat and predictable. This can be true when it's all that's driving a character and a story. If it's going to work, the want has to be pretty dramatic and life threatening, and the action intense and. But they can and do work in specific genre films. Think of Raiders of the Lost Arc or Jurassic Park.

My response is that the want is only part of the equation. Great writers craft characters who are driven by desires. That's plural. We characterize these desires as wants and needs, and by focusing on them we are able to reveal the character's different sides.

Wants & Needs

I differentiate wants and needs this way. A want is a goal. The character can clearly focus on it and is conscious of why she wants it. A need is an unconscious desire that motivates the character to act. If you interviewed your character and asked her what she wanted, she could tell you what and why. Now her "why" may not be the real motivating force for her actions, but this "why" would be how the character understands her impetus and reasons.

A need is a motivating force the character is unconscious of. It is something that prickles beneath the surface of the character and influences their actions and behavior, often in surprising ways. April in Revolutionary Road needs to change her life and get out of her unsatisfying marriage to Frank. But her focused goal is to get Frank to quit his job and move the family to Paris. She sees Paris as the solution to the unhappy life in provincial 50s America.

Often what's most interesting in a story is the conflict between a character's wants and his needs. Movies from Casablancaand The Conversation to The Reader and The Wrestler use this incompatibility between goals and needs to squeeze powerful drama from their story situations.

After basic descriptions of who the important characters have been written, four important questions can help a writer define the further.

  1. What does my character want?
  2. Why does he want it?
  3. Why can't he get it?
  4. What does he need?

These may seem like simple questions, but crafting the answers so that they produce active creations instead of passive parts is hardly easy.

First, you want to make sure that whatever the main characters want, these goals or objectives are specific, clear, and difficult to achieve. There has to be enough energy in this goal to drive a plot for the duration of the movie.

Second, the reasons for the characters' goals must be credible and authentic.

Third, when a specific protagonist/antagonist relationship anchors the script, the answers to these questions should be in direct opposition. In Frost/Nixon, David Frost wants the Nixon interview for the notoriety and prestige it will award him; Nixon wants it for the quick cash and believes he will squash the lightweight TV personality. Neither character really understands what he is up against. 

If there isn't a full on antagonist, the protagonist must still meet with a strong conflict. Whether it's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Touching The Void, characters must face a sustained dramatic conflict to create a compelling story.

Fourth, a character's need can be the cause of more conflict, or the source of the solution to the conflict. It will depend on your story, but the need is usually connected to the character's arc. In both The Reader and Revolutionary Road, we see characters whose needs destroy them. In Slumdog Millionaire, we see a character whose need sustains and fulfills him.

When you work on a script, keep these notes on all your important characters handy. Use them to define all their wants and needs, and then put the characters into action. Commit your characters to their goals, and give them a plan of action to attain them. Look for oppositions suggested between them and work out ways to strengthen these conflicts. It will intensify your story.