The Structure Of Character

Every once in a while I feel the need to open up this can of worms, this time because of an article I recently read.

The irony? People know me as Structure Man, though most of the time I talk about character.

The Dept Revisited – A rerun of the best of the Story Dept.

The reason I have chosen a structural approach to screenwriting is because this is the greatest weakness I can see in the industry I work in and the writers I work with. Most are perfectly capable of writing great scenes with juicy dialogue, suggesting characters that have ‘something to say’. But when it comes to organizing this into a feature length story, the card house collapses.

Character or plot. Which comes first?

Some say character prevails, others say it’s a chicken and egg thing. But … how do you define what a screen character is all about?

I believe the best way to define a character is by showing what s/he is willing to do in order to achieve a goal. This is a visible, action-driven approach.

Dialogue doesn’t work, because often when a character says exactly what s/he thinks or feels, it sounds false, ‘on the nose’. How often do movie characters say exactly the opposite of what they mean? In the first act, during which the character is set up, the true nature of characters is often shown through the lies they are willing to tell to protect what is sacred to them.

Even stage and screen dialogue master David Mamet says:

“There’s no such thing as character development.
All there is, is action”

In most dramatic films, the main character only starts breaking through these lies around the mid point. Then, s/he will show complete honesty at the end of Act Two, at the Ordeal / Plot Point 2.

Know the character before you can give it reactions to plot.

This is typically something the character-oriented writer would say.

Or is this plotting exactly how you find out about your character? I believe the latter.

To get to know your character, you imagine events and situations, then you imagine how the character will respond. You don’t know your character until you have gone through this process. It is the response to a number of meaningful situations that will fully define the true character. And the strongest response(s) will make it into the movie. In successful films this is almost always visible action, not dialogue.

It is the response to a number of meaningful situations
that will fully define the true character.

In my seminars and workshops, I speak of Events and Actions to make this distinction clear. In order to see the difference, first we need to place ourselves firmly in the point of view of one single character, i.e. the hero or main character.

All story consists of Events and Actions

So, first you need to design the situation (Event) that happens to the character, then you design the response (Action).

And if you want to create character transformation, the nature of the character’s responses changes over the course of the movie. The key changes are strategically placed over the course of the story, or the audience won’t get it.

Now you have created PLOT. Story structure.

Intelligent story design adheres to strict principles

Because the audience is conditioned by 1) how characters act and transform on the real world and 2) all the movies they’ve seen before, story design can never be random or completely free. As a matter of fact, the more you learn about your character’s psychology, the more you will realize that the behavior of credible characters follow particular patterns. Stray off the path of these patterns and the suspension of disbelief will end, right there. This is about emotional logic.

Not only does every audience have an expectation based on what they unconsciously know about the human psyche, they are also conditioned by the stories they have heard and the movies they have seen. By ignoring how successful films work, you are setting yourself the challenge of re-inventing the wheel and both you, the screenwriter, and the audience will have to work much harder to achieve any, let alone a stronger emotional payoff.

Only a small share of the audience is open to challenging structures.

And even this small audience keeps shrinking. Less and less producers, financiers, distributors and exhibitors are willing to take the risk.
To ignore this fact is not a good career decision under the current climate. To tell people they can ignore this fact is really sabotaging their careers.

To summarise:

Character is defined by actions. Meaningful actions are always shown in a structured way: plot.

Therefore, you need plot in order to express character.  Q.E.D.

Some screenwriters are reluctant to learn structural principles. They keep ‘exploring the character’, i.e. writing subsequent drafts until they give up.  The excuse is often that a structural approach – which may include extensive outlining – ‘doesn’t work for them’. I found it interesting that even David Michod, writer/director of the arthouse crime drama Animal Kingdom, admitted that he turned to outlining after the other approach would ‘paint himself in a stupid corner’.

The moral obligation of the screenwriter

If you don’t understand the structural principles that govern the creation of plot, your feature film will fail to reach the critical mass it needs to break even.

As a screenwriter you need to understand this because you have a great deal of responsibility. Your choices will have a real impact on those who are willing to support the making of your film. I mean not just the producer or financiers but the cast who take points, the crew who are willing to defer their fees etc.

The be-all and end-all

Of course the discussion doesn’t end here and there will always be examples of the opposite. I would recommend not staring yourself blind on the exception that proves your method, but instead looking at writers who keeping being hugely successful and study their methods. Then find your own.

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.
Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 6-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.

[this basis for this post was published on June 14 2009 and selected for rerun by Adrian]

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