One of the most crucial elements of a screenplay is characterization. Screenwriting workshops focus on how to write good, compelling characters with proper arcs because characters can carry or crash your script. When writing characters, you need to think about their goals and their needs and how those two contribute to the character’s development.
Character development is a major target for script readers who provide screenwriting feedback so it must be refined.
What Does Your Character Really Need?
Will the protagonist getting what he initially sets out to achieve be the end of your story? Will—in a movie like The Town—getting away with the stolen money truly satisfy the protagonist? Or does he come to realize that a duffle bag full of money isn’t really what he needs at all…and that what he needs is the love and acceptance of the girl?
Once your protagonist’s “want” is satisfied, the most compelling characters must come face-to-face with their internal reason that created the “want” in the first place. In screenwriting language, this is called character subtext. If your protagonist has no personal rationale for working so hard to achieve his wants, then the achievement of those wants will feel shallow and one-dimensional. Give your character a reason for everything he does, and your reader will accept everything he does…even if it involves the cannibalism of Hannibal Lecter!
To allow your character to reveal their subtext and their inner needs, you must make their life difficult. Where there is no serious obstacle to the achievement of objectives and the fulfillment of needs, there is no conflict, and where there is no conflict, there is no story worth telling.
If you make it too easy for your protagonist to reach their goals and enjoy the fulfillment of their needs, there won’t be a genuine challenge requiring the actions of a hero, and we simply won’t care what happens to them. You make us care about your protagonist by making them as relatable as possible. Remember, the reader must remain involved in your character’s struggle to achieve their objectives from the first pages of your script to the last.
So how do you engage the reader? Do you write the most likeable and charismatic character of all time? No. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable, but he or she does need to be someone we can relate to. Because your hero is going to be the primary driver of the action, the more specific their wants and needs are, the better…and the more likely we are to want to see them achieve these wants.
Another piece of advice from screenwriting workshops is that as you conceive your character and construct your story, be sure to create formidable obstacles that force your protagonist to work hard and to rise above their own personal limitations. After all, the definition of a dramatic hero is someone who is not only skilled at their job, but who has to work hard to demonstrate those skills against a worthy opponent.
Heroes Need Villains
Speaking of opponents, your hero or protagonist is only one side of the equation. Opposing the protagonist at every turn, creating those obstacles to the hero’s objectives, is his opponent, or as he’s called in screenwriting language: the antagonist.
Antagonists are characters whose task it is to prevent the protagonist from achieving their objectives. They are the hero’s enemy, the ones who create the conflict that draws us into the story. Without a credible antagonist, the protagonist has nothing to confront and ultimately overcome. The stronger the antagonist, and the more formidable he is as an opponent, the more the protagonist will be forced to overcome and the greater the struggle will be.
This is the key to building conflict between your characters and within your story. In any screenwriting workshop, conflict is stressed as one of the defining elements of a screenplay. Without the yin-yang of protagonist-antagonist, your story will feel soft and pointless. The more layered and fully-developed your antagonist—the more the reader understands the antagonist’s motivations for obstructing the path of your hero—the greater the threat to the hero, the greater the conflict, and the more compelling your story.
Villains With Purpose
But more than merely tossing boulders in the hero’s path, a well-drawn antagonist forces the hero to evolve and to explore his own true motivations that lie deeper than his immediate wants.
If there’s one enlightening piece of advice screenwriting workshops offer, it’s this: when conceiving and developing your characters, give as much attention to your villains as you give to your hero, and you’ll create compelling conflicts that will capture the interest of your reader and of the ticket-buying audience.
When your protagonist discovers his or her needs through conflict with the antagonist, he or she can then move past the realm of desire to an examination of their own flaws, wounds, and emotional needs as the key to their fulfillment as a character. Those conflicts and those emotional needs are what create memorable, iconic characters.
When you get screenwriting feedback and it criticizes your characters as flat or passive, know that you should dive deeper. It’s your job to explore character needs and to reveal them in your writing.
How do you know when you’ve done your job, when you’ve managed to create characters your script reader is going to care enough about to read through your entire screenplay?
If you can answer the following four questions clearly and succinctly, you’ll know you’re on the right track:
- Who is the main driver of your story, the protagonist we’re going to care about?
- What does your protagonist want more than anything else…and what will they discover about themselves in the process of getting what they want?
- What are the obstacles facing your protagonist, and are they so challenging as to make the outcome of their task uncertain?
- How will your protagonist rise to the challenge and overcome those obstacles in ways we don’t anticipate?
Answer those questions and you’re ready to begin developing the character specifics that will build the conflicts essential to a successful screenplay.