By Fred Fernando
Characters are the guiding force of any story. They serve as the connection between an audience and the narrative. The more relatable a character is, the more the viewers identify with him/her.
But developing a character is no minute task. Screenwriters spend months or years writing a script but if the characters are underdeveloped, the resulting film itself can fall flat and there is very little a director or even his actors can do to save it. Here are a few tips on how to create well-rounded characters.
- Every character needs a goal
A story starts off with a character having a clear intention or goal. In Rocky (1976), the main character’s goal is to beat Apollo Creed, the world champion. In John Wick (2014), John wants revenge on the men who killed his dog. The goal creates the drive for the character to take action and thus move the story forwards. Sometimes, during the course of a film, the goal can change as well. For instance, in Jurassic Park (1993) Alan Grant’s first goal is to verify the safety of a dino park but halfway through, his goal flips and turns to ensure the survival and safety of himself and the children.
Either way, the goal or intention drives the character and also helps writers define character traits.
- Obstacles, obstacles
As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin puts it, everything boils down to intentions and obstacles. Somebody wants something and something stands in his way of getting it. It’s the tactics and methods a character utilises to navigate the obstacles that end up defining what sort of character they are.
In The Lion King (1994), Simba is persuaded by Rafiki to claim his role as the true king, but his own uncle Scar stands in his way. In Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones ventures in search of the Ark of the Covenant but a group of Nazis are also in pursuit of the same.
- Character arcs
Whenever we are introduced to a character, we see their normal state of life. How they go about their day-to-day activities. And then something happens which pulls them out of their comfort zone. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins leads a cosy hobbit’s life until he is thrust with the task of destroying the One Ring of Power. This changes his entire life. In Interstellar (2014), Cooper and his daughter stumble upon a secret NASA facility which enlists him on a mission to save humanity. This is the inciting incident which turns the character’s life upside down. And the goal is sometimes born out of this inciting incident.
Once you have a goal, there are obviously going to be obstacles.
The path to navigate through obstacles and achieve a character’s goal is what creates the character arc. And this is where narrative structures (which we will discuss in a later article) such as the three-act, five-act come into play.
Utilising a narrative structure to plan out the course of your character’s actions helps cement their character arc.
The failure of a character to achieve what he needs creates sympathy for the character. Opening a film with the character failing helps the audience empathise with him/her and thereby connect. While certain characters can be quite unlikable, it is their failures and constant need to achieve that serve as a pathway for the audience to relate to them.
When a character has nothing to lose, it creates ambition, which he or she will do everything in their power to achieve. This ambition helps create conflict as the characters might have to come up with unconventional ways to attain their goals.
- Success and redemption
After the failures, after finding new, creative ways to achieve their goals, a character could finally succeed – or not! In Braveheart (1995), William Wallace achieves his goal but ends up sacrificing his life.
Either way, there has to be a cost. Most of the time, having gone through their arc, the character comes back full circle to where we found them at the start. But he or she has gone through significant change. Either they’ve lost someone or something. There is always a cost. It adds more gravity to their success.
Redemption might exist or not; it depends on whether the writer wants to redeem the character’s past actions or not. However, if the character does have redemption, it can serve as the final arc of a storyline.
In 2015, filmmaking collective High School Junkies started creating short films out of passion and soon gained momentum as a film production house that championed frugal filmmaking. Their second short, EIDETIC, became the first-ever Sri Lankan film to be screened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and has subsequently been screened all over the world. They host guests from Hollywood on their webinar, Junkyard Theory.