Random Thoughts on Main Characters


Up Guy

While we’re on the topic of characters, here are a few more random thoughts about movie characters for you to chew on:

Everyone Loves a Hero

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.  They face all kinds of challenges.  What all heroes have in common is that, for one reason or another, we admire them.

The definition of a hero is: “A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

What Makes a hero?

They do something worth talking about.  They face issues or taken on endeavors that are out of the ordinary; that is what makes their behavior “heroic.”

They serve powers and principles larger than themselves.  They have a clearly understood code of ethics and morals that inform their decisions.

They live lives worth imitating.  Something about their choices and actions appeal to us as admirable.  When we watch them, we think to ourselves that if we were in the same position we’d have the temerity to do the same.

They are catalysts for change in others.  They impact the lives of others, for good.  They inspire others to do better.  They lift up the lives around them and enable others to discover their own inner heroes.

Heroism comes out of making an ethical choice.

Heroes know themselves.  They understand their personal value systems.  They recognize that there are risks to the choices they make, and they accepts the consequences willingly because it’s in the service of a great good.

Heroes embody the idea of humility.  They don’t believe they are heroes.  They view themselves as individuals who have a job to do; and they must do it.

Compelling Characters Change

One of two things has to change in a story: either the main character changes or the reader’s opinion of a character must change.  Without change in your main character, there is no story.  There is merely a chain of events.  What makes it a story is the logical, scene-by-scene change in a character from one emotional pole at the beginning of a script to another at the end.

If you can’t feel the humanity of a character, there is no story to tell.

The characters in a movie are the conduit that allows a reader to imagine him or herself in that world.  In a well-written script, the audience understands the main character, identifies with that characters wants and needs and empathizes with the character as they face obstacles and struggles in their quest to attain their goals.

It’s through the emotional experiences of the main character that the reader identifies with that character.  The more the reader identifies, the more the reader will experience the emotions within the story as his or her emotions.  It’s why we laugh and why we cry.

It’s not WHO, it’s WHY.

Sure, we need to know who the main characters is and what they want.  But the reason that we invest in a story, the reason we want to grasp the detailed workings of a story, is because we want to understand WHY a character has to do what he or she does.

If we understand the “why” behind the choices a character makes, we’ll have empathy for those characters — even when they make choices with which we don’t agree.  If we have empathy for them, we’ll care about them.

Specificity, yes! 

The actor Paul Michael Glaser once told me something that the great playwright Harold Pinter told him: “You cannot be too specific.”  He was right.

When you write your script, you don’t want your reader to have to work to figure what a character looks like, sounds like or acts like.  The more specific you can be in the details you provide your reader, the easier it will be for that character to be imagined by your reader.

Clarity, absolutely!

Reader’s base their opinions of the characters in a script on how consistent and clear they are in their actions and choices.  When a character contradicts him- or herself repeatedly or their dialogue reads like different people speaking at different times, the reader will become confused.  The characters will become muddy in the reader’s imagination.  .

To ensure that your reader identifies with your characters, be specific in the traits you give to your characters.  Make sure that the traits, wants and emotions of your characters are clearly demonstrated and stated.

Don’t be coy.  Don’t leave it up to the reader to make the final decision as to what to think about your characters.  Be clear about how you want your readers to feel about your characters.

Limit accuracy for clarity.

Movies are works of fiction.  Even when you’re doing an historical drama about real people, you are fictionalizing aspects of the story and the characters.

It is not essential that you are always accurate about every detail.  It is essential that you are accurate about the emotions in the story.  If you need to skip details or elide moments to create a clear understanding of an emotional beat in a story, always err on the side of clarity.


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