How to create a great character. The holy grail for the beginning screenwriter. Yet, when you listen to the gurus, it sounds so simple. Once you have a few scripts under your belt, you will realise how difficult it can be. Great characters are essential to an engaging sellable story. This is true for the movies, and even more for TV. Now, the character we are going to talk about here, is the cinematic type.
Your screenwriting teacher probably told you that a great character must be well-defined. Nice one. That didn’t get us any further. Elsewhere, you may have read that a truly great character is three-dimensional. Not much better, if you ask me. What exactly does that mean, three-dimensional? (I prefer 2D movies to 3D any day)
Hang on, I believe Lajos Egri can help us out. He lists the three dimensions when he talks about the ‘bone structure’. They are Physiognomy, sociology and psychology. It’s a great approach, as it tells us exactly which three aspects of a character must be described in the script.
But he doesn’t say which combinations work, nor does he really explain in great detail HOW to achieve this.
In other words, it doesn’t really give us a great character, either.
Michael Hauge lists five ways of making your character relatable. But ‘relatable’ doesn’t mean ‘great character for the screen’. (Michael lists ‘power, likeability, jeopardy, sympathy and comedy as ways to make us care for a character. They’re great! But he forgot one super important aspect)
Okay, let’s do this differently.
Great Characters In Movies
I’ll give you a few great characters from big and small screen, and we’ll decide what they have in common.
Some of you may have figured out that these characters all have clear, strong goals.
But it’s not enough.
A Character Goal Is Not Enough
You, reader, have a clear, strong goal too, right? You probably want to write and sell that damn screenplay.
Only you’re not. And there’s the difference.
You would be, if only you were OBSESSIVE about it.
(Okay, you may still be a great character..)
And this is what every truly great movie character is: obsessive.
Let’s not argue about taste. I’m talking about movies that people LOVE, movies people pay money to see multiple times, and movies that win BIG awards. I’m talking about characters like Jack in Titanic, the squirrel in Ice Age who wants his acorn, Vicus in District 9, Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, Chris Kyle in American Sniper, and Philomena. And Rocky Balboa. And Scarface.
And I’m talking about one of my favourite characters: Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection.
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After spotting Sal Boca in the Copacabana, Jimmy (Hackman) and Buddy (Scheider) start shadowing him. When the sun rises, Jimmy still hasn’t given up. Later, he’ll be staking out the Frenchman in the freezing cold, refusing to go home like the others.
Like his cinematic peers, Jimmy is totally and utterly obsessive about his goal. In my books, Jimmy is a truly great character.
The French Connection is in essence about the dark side to that obsession. THIS makes for a deep, complex cinematic character.
Great movie characters go for it. They may not 100% know exactly what lies at the end of their path, but they move forward with unrelenting energy, will power and life force.
The Fourth Question
You may have read David Mamet’s memo to the writers of The Unit, in which he poses three questions that define drama:
Who wants what from whom?
What if they don’t get it?
They set up the character goal, the stakes and the motivation. On the conceptual level, the latter is the same as the Inciting Incident.
Mamet has summarised the essence of drama really well. And it you have a clear answer for each, you’re well on your way to building an engaging screen story. But for a truly great, timeless story, three questions is not enough.
So I’ve added the fourth:
4. What are they prepared to do?
Take Walter White. It is initially very clear what he wants: $700,000. We know why, and we know what happens if he doesn’t get it. But we don’t have Breaking Bad yet.
The critical question is “What is Walter White prepared to do?” The answer to this question makes Breaking Bad an instant-classic TV series. (Also, the answer to this question changes over the course of the five seasons.)
If you manage to create a character that is completely determined to achieve what they want, unrelenting and unstoppable; if your character will not give in at any cost, to the point where they sacrifice what may have been dearest to them once in their lives… you are on your way to create a great character…
And there may be a career in it for you.
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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17 thoughts on “What Makes A GREAT Character [and it’s not what you think].”
It seems to me some of these characters have unclear goals, in the sense that they are torn between drives, or want one thing but are dragged away from it to something else. I don’t think you can call them obsessive if they care about more than one thing.
Walter White is notionally trying to find his treatment and provide for his family but actually marches into playing the game for its own sake, dragging the peaceful aspects of his personality behind him kicking and screaming.
Michael Corleone wants out but is sucked in by finding himself holding the baby.
Joy (she’s the main character, right, not Riley?) wants Riley to be happy and has to learn about catharsis. Ripley is in survival horror, one of the genres where the central character doesn’t strictly need a motive (detective is another) and she basically just wants to survive.
The Bride is also one-note and to me a less interesting character, Viveca Fox’s character offers her more complexity but then jerks it back by trying to kill her. It’s Bill who develops more complex and interesting motivations towards the end.
Dexter is another torn character.
Justified’s male leads are also torn, it’s not obvious what they will do when theirfriendship, debt, duty and self-interest collide.
On Game of Thrones Daenerys is torn between principle and pragmatism, Westeros and Esseros. Melisandre is an example of the obsessive character you support. Snow is torn between Winterfell, Watch and Wildlings but it’s always fairly clear who will win. Tyrion is a very popular but basically passive character, someone who breaks the writing rules. Jaime Lannister is torn always and passive when Sersei is about, Sersei is passive. Maybe this show is too weird to generalise from.
Thank you David.
Perhaps I should have left out Walter White, as he is from TV, and I claimed to be talking about film only.
Interesting that some of your examples are also from TV.
I would still say that Joy is obsessive about making Riley happy.
Isn’t Michael Corleone obsessive about retaining his power, at the cost of his family? Family is arguably the MOST central value in Sicily/Old Italy, and proving the point that these characters are willing to sacrifice what they once loved more than anything else…
Maybe the key point is that there are certain weaknesses central characters must not have, like apathy. No drive is bad, one drive (obsessive) can be enough, multiple drives can also be good.
Joy starts the movie obsessive about making Riley happy. Hence not allowing Sadness to touch the memories. But that changes. She might be a serial obsessive, I guess.
Michael Corleone does what he does for his family’s sake, not despite it. He’d have rather married a civilian and walked into the sunset at the start of the film, but if he does that his family dies so he can’t.
Starting from http://www.filmsite.org/100characters4.html
Vito Corleone: I guess I have to give you this one, he’s obsessive.
Fred Dobbs: It’s not that he’s obsessive, it’s his paranoia. But close enough.
Scarlett O’Hara: certainly develops obsessions at some times in the story.
Norman Bates: multiple personalities, some of which are obsessive perhaps.
I seem to be doing very badly here but I just noticed all these characters are from the 1970s at the latest, Let’s try something more modern. http://www.etcanada.com/movies/photos/empire_mag_readers_favourite_movie_characters_of_all_time.aspx#!Indiana_Jones
1. Indiana Jones: Multiple drivers: uncover buried secrets, stop the nazis, save the girl … when he has a rocket launcher aimed at the ark his rival calls his bluff and it’s the balance of the drives that matters.
2. James Bond: Save the world, get the girl: sometime sthey come into conflict.
3. Han Solo: mercenary but not as mercenary as he likes to pretend, help his friends, protect his love. At a key plot point decides to abandon his friends and is probably at least partially talked out of it by Chewie. Definitely multiple drives.
4. Batman: I guess I’ll give you this one, he’s an obsessive.
5. Ripley: Survival horror so she’s just doing what anyone would do – trying to survive.
6. The Joker: obsessive? Though a mercurial one. Perhaps a serial obsessive, leaping from project to project.
7. John McClane: partially survival-drive, partially save the girl, partially do the job. As it turns out the drives never clash so he acts like an obsessive but maybe isn’t.
8. Tyler Durden: obsessive?
9. Darth Vader: Always a little tension between serving the emperor, avenging insults to the force by colleagues and wanting to recruit his son.
10. The Dude: I vaguely recall this film.
For these more modern characters being obsessive is a little rarer.
An obsessive we all loved: T-800 series from Terminator. You put one of those on the job they don’t slack off when they get tired.
Nice, David. Thanks!
Tyler Durden – a character from a $20m arthouse film ;o)
The Dude – DEFINITELY obsessive about his rug!
“What are they prepared to do?”. Excellent question. Excellent insight, Karel. Thanks. If I may, HOTTS! number 7 is close to your point. https://youtu.be/S4LqS1P2scw
What are you doing on my website, Yves??
Shouldn’t you be celebrating on the Champs Elysées?? ;)
10 am in France. Shouldn’t you be in bed?
Nah. I’m obsessive about this.
But seriously Yves, what do you think about Dave’s points above?
I don’t know all the quoted characters. I agree with Dave in regards to Michael Corleone. At the beginning, it seems to me he does not wants to get involved. I disagree on Ripley. But… in narratives of survival, the least you expect from protagonists is that they are totally dedicated (to saving their butts!). So the fact that Ripley is obsessive does not suffice to make her likeable. I disagree on Walter White. Granted, his goals evolve but, at the start of the show, he is determined to provide for his family and to go far, very far, to attain that goal. To be torn is not a problem. It’s one kind of obstacles, a nice one. I think your point is very valid. The question “What are they prepared to do?” is paramount. I think of other examples : Mulan, Antigone, the four desperate housewives, Galileo in “Life of Galileo”, Oedipus in “Oedipus the King”, Ethan (John Wayne) in “The Searchers”. Note that Oedipus is torn. Still, he is totally dedicated to eradicating the plague on Thebes. Locally, I would quote McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when he wants to see his baseball game. He is so willing that he ends up getting excited by an imaginary game on a blank screen.
Thanks Yves. Great examples.
For more examples, people can always go to your book, I guess. ;)
(Check on this blog: https://thestorydepartment.com/writing-drama-1)
Thanks, Karel. Another useful link : http://www.clown-enfant.com/leclown/shop/category.php?pageid=8. What’s great, these days, is that we have so many inputs on story telling. We can grab gems here and there.
I see a significant connection between the obsessiveness you mention and other elements such as the inciting incident, the stakes and the obstacles. If you create an inciting incident which acts as an electroshock for the future protagonist, there is a good chance he will be fully dedicated to reaching his goal. If you raise the stakes (and make them clear), if the protagonist has really something to lose in the course of the action, then too he will be committed. Last, if you rub salt on his wound, if you oppose him with huge (but not too high) obstacles, you will test your protagonist’s obsessiveness.
Another beautiful willing protagonist : Annie Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER. The scene where she forces Helen to eat is marvelous. There is even a small gag. Annie starts at lunch and when Helen yields, it’s dinner time.
Funnily enough relentlessness – essentially what Karel would call obsessiveness – is what I teach are one of the three must-have traits of any compelling villain. Never thought the trait would particularly apply to protagonists as well. (Though one of my key criticisms of Australian features continues to be that their protagonists have no backbone.)
Question for you, Karel: How does obsessiveness relate to the Hero’s Journey? I mean, is it not usual for the protagonist to be stumbling and unsure after the inciting incident? And so, how can obsessiveness come in at that stage? Perhaps the classic case of young Luke Skywalker could be used as your explanatory example here?