Screenplay Tip: How To Make Characters Active

Want to have actors loving your characters? Want to have readers enjoying your screenplay? The key is to make your characters active. This video explains how that’s possible.

So, common feedback on the film script format that writers often get is about inactive characters. This may be confusing to some people because, from their viewpoint, the characters are plenty active. Meaning that they have dialogues and are moving and doing something throughout the script. Yet, the feedback says that they are inactive.

So, let’s clear up the definition of active characters.

Active Characters

Inactive characters are when the characters don’t have clear goals and don’t pursue anything specific. A clear goal is the object of a character’s desires. It’s a point in space and time of physical location or a physical object in space and time. It means that a character is going after something.

Many people call it the McGuffin. The McGuffin is a device in fiction or a film script format that is insignificant yet necessary for the plot or the character’s motivation. While there are very sophisticated ways of creating McGuffin, writers should master doing it the simplest way because most successful films use this mechanism.

Simple Goals That Make Your Characters Active

The key point of these goals is to move the story forward. So, let’s take a look at some common goals that the audience can easily grasp. For example;

  1. Get the briefcase full of money to yeah just get the briefcase full of money across the border by midnight tomorrow.
  2. Get the rock star to the venue within the next 12 hours in time for their show.

Now, there are also some looser goals that don’t necessarily have a clear point in space and time but are very clear. However, those won’t be discussed in this video because that is a little more advanced.

Active characters need to have the pursuit of a very clear goal on a scene-by-scene basis. But that goal has to be linked to a macro goal which is the overarching goal. So, for example, the goal in the film script format is to get the kidnapped daughter back. But this task has to be linked to a macro goal which is the overarching goal. This means that to get the kidnapped daughter back, the character has to make a plan and put it into action. Now, the micro-goals can be on a scene-by-scene basis.  It’s all in service for the narrative spine so what you need is a clear character goal.

Inactive Character

Inactive characters don’t have a clear goal to pursue. Things in the plot happen to them which takes them to different locations inside of the narrative. They are floating within the narrative and are a character that just floats in objective in a disjointed narrative. Disjointing means that the goal is not lined up, conflicts are inconsistent, and there is no overarching goal.

Let’s take a really well-written script on a scene-by-scene basis for an example. A scene-by-scene script format is one where every scene has a clear goal. It’s clear that the writer has the talent and that it’s a really good screenplay structure. However, it lacks the overarching goal. This means that the conflict from one scene does not bleed into the other scene. A bunch of scenes with nothing to tie it to some macro overarching goal. What this does is that when the story ends, the audience has no idea what happened at all.

This means that they couldn’t track the plot because it was missing a clear goal. A clear goal creates the focus for the audience so that they can understand what’s happening. So, it doesn’t matter really even if the narrative is super confusing. For example, in the movie Inception, everything is confusing but it is still trackable. The main idea is to plant an idea in Fisher’s head. So, even though the film script format is confusing, the audience is still able to keep up with everything.

Clear Goal Adds To The Entertainment Value

When the writer doesn’t have a clear trajectory towards a climax, they are stripping the audience of the entertainment value. Writer’s should develop and practice the skill of differentiating a clear goal from a vague goal. For instance, the school of survival is not a clear goal since survival is a never-ending cycle. If the bad guy is trying to kill the character and the character keeps escaping, then there will be no climax. There should be a destination for the character to escape to because a goal is the physical manifestation of the character’s desire.

Now, the survival cycle is similar to what happens when it comes to finding love. Finding love is not a clear goal. With this goal as the center of the screenplay structure, there is no trajectory towards a climax.

So, the lesson to take away here is to have active characters, you have to be able to pinpoint what a clear character goal is. And know how to clarify that just to drive it home a little bit more.

The Race Analogy

In a setting where there are Usain Bolt and five other guys, lined up for a race, the goal is very clear. They will run and reach the finish line and get the gold medal. What makes it entertaining is the backstory of the racers. When the audience understands where the characters came from, what they had to go through, etc. is when the plot gets interesting. Even if the race is over in like 7 seconds, the audience is fully entertained because there was a clear goal.

It’s important to note that if you’re just watching the race it is the same thing. People are pumping their legs and moving distances, and all the action is happening on screen. However, without a backstory, the audience’s desire to watch it is completely evaporated. This is because there is not a clear goal.

The Bottom Line

Young writers out there need to understand the importance of an overarching goal or a clear goal. Because they may doubt its importance since it’s not always clear in the movies. But it’s a learning curve.  It’s actually difficult to simplify and to identify clear goals and motivations in a character. It’s a skill that you have to develop and it’s something that you work on identifying.

All writers out there need to understand that people will be bored if your characters are not active. And what makes an active character is a clear goal that they are pursuing. And if they lose interest, then your movie is probably never going to be made.

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