By: Hudson Phillips.
A lot of writers will do personality profiles to help “get to know” their characters but I think that just might be one of those forms of procrastination (like “research”) that seem important but are really just fun to do!
I believe it’s actually a negative to get to know your main character too much. Knowing my character’s favorite candy doesn’t actually help me get anything done (unless the movie is about their search for said candy).
When you do these deep dives into the history of your protagonist, you lose the ability to look at them through the lens of your audience. You begin to fill in blanks in your writing that aren’t really there. You know why the character is doing something, but your audience does not.
The audience only knows what they see on the screen or read on the page. The ability to get all key information across clearly and concisely is a unique skill set that I think single-handedly separates good writers from great ones.
Keeping your story “on-screen” is all about set-up and payoff. What you set up in your 1st act needs to be paid off by the end and what you pay off in the 3rd act needs to be set up beforehand. By making sure each element is set up and paid off, you are ensuring your story stays contained to those 100-ish pages.
There are eight questions I always try to answer about my protagonist before I start writing. Why? Because answering these questions gets you out of research and into writing. These eight questions provide the key elements of your main character that will be set up, explored, and paid off throughout the course of your script. They help you tell your “on-screen” story.
- What is their flaw? I would define a flaw as “something wrong inside themselves that needs to be fixed.” In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s flaw is that his life is driven by fear. He lost his wife and the rest of his family and he’s afraid to lose Nemo as well. In Up, Carl’s flaw is that his life is filled with regret. That he “wasted” his life and never gave his wife the life she dreamed of.
- What do they want? Their want is what they think will fix their flaw. This is the anti-theme of your film. The thing your character believes at the beginning needs to be changed by the end. Their starting point. Marlin wants to protect Nemo at all costs. Carl wants to live a life of adventure. They will attempt to achieve these wants throughout the course of the film until they finally learn their lesson in the end.
- What do they need? Their need is what will actually fix their flaw. This is the theme of your film. The lesson that your character needs to learn by the end. Their ending point. Your job as a writer is to take them from what they want to what they need. How do you do this? By putting obstacles in their way that make them question their beliefs. Marlin needs to learn that “if you love something you should set it free.” Carl needs to learn that “when you have someone to love, adventure is all around you.” In order to learn these lessons, they’re going to have to go through an up (wink) and down roller coaster that shakes them up and turns them over.
- What is their goal? Their goal is what they think will get them what they want. This is the journey of your film. Your character will be driven by this goal the entire film. For Marlin, it’s to… well, Find Nemo. For Carl, it’s to fly home to the jungles of South America (the adventure he and his wife always longed for). The goal is what the movie is about—the engine that drives the story.
- What is their fear? Their fear is the thing they are most afraid of. As a writer, it’s gonna be your job to, at some point in the story, make them face that fear. Why? Because facing our fears bring about change. Marlin is going to see Nemo get hurt. Carl is going to see his beloved house burn down. Notice how closely their fears are tied to their goals?
- What are their strengths & skills? Their strength is something great that they are. Their skill is something great that they do. Marlin’s strength is his ability to control his environment. That’s taken away from him when he’s partnered with Dory—someone out of control. Carl’s skill is being handy. He’s able to fix every little thing that breaks around the house. You’re going to take their strengths and skills away from them. Why? Because losing our strengths and skills brings about change. Marlin’s determination is all for naught once he thinks Nemo is dead. Carl’s handiness doesn’t do much good when the house falls into a pit.
- What is their weakness? Their weakness is something they see as a flaw in themselves. If their skill is something they do, their weakness is something they can’t do (or can’t do well.) Somewhere along the course of your story, that weakness is going to be turned on its head in some way or seen as a strength. Why? Because seeing ourselves in a new light brings about change.
- What do they value? An easy way to define your character’s values is to ask “what is something they always do?” and “what is something they never do?” You’re going to challenge these values by giving them a very hard decision between living up to their values and getting what they want. Why? Because challenging what we believe brings about change. Marlin will always protect Nemo before letting him be free. So what happens when the only way to save Dory is to let Nemo go into danger? Carl will always choose to protect his memories of his wife over the life in front of him. So what happens when he has to choose between saving their house or saving Kevin the bird?
See the running theme yet? Each of these questions not only helps you set up the character in your story, but it also helps you pay off the character’s journey. Each of these elements, when set up and paid off properly, brings about a satisfying (and realistic) change in your protagonist.
Hudson Phillips is a screenwriter, producer, and founder of ScriptBlast.com.
His new book, Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Write a Character-Driven Screenplay that Connects Emotionally with your Audience, is now available on Amazon.
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