Why Character is Everything in Screenwriting

Next month (April and again in June) I am teaching a class in Story Analysis at UCLA Extension. Teaching has given me a chance to revisit some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 20+ years of screenwriting, and foremost on that list are the principles of CHARACTER.

“A story starts with a character”

– Frank Daniel

Although screenwriters and many development executives tend to focus a great deal on concept and plot, every story is about SOMEONE. Even if that someone is a dog (Marley) or a pig (Babe) or a robot (Chappie) it is a story of someone’s transformation. Because transformation is what great stories are all about.

“I started here. I believed such-and-such. Something unexpected took me away from all that. It forced me to do what I had not done before. It forced me to become who I was not before. I am not the same person now, I am new.”

This basic story, what Joseph Campbell called the mono-myth, is the template that underlies every well-composed drama: The going out, the adventure, and the return as someone new, someone changed.

Whether that person’s transformation is one of character, or of circumstance, or fortune, or understanding – transformation is the one element required for a story to be satisfying at all. In fact, transformation is what most adventures are designed to bring about.

Dorothy’s adventures in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (just like ‘Alice in Wonderland’) provokes a transformation of character. She begins as a child, she ends up as a self-reliant young woman.

Or the weakling Steve Rogers who becomes ‘Captain America’; or the over-privileged playboy of Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest,’ or the broken dreamers of ‘La La Land’ – every one of them profoundly transformed by their adventures.

The Character Arc

I never begin writing ANY story without knowing who my characters are when we meet them, and who they become by the story’s conclusion. Whatever the outward adventure, no matter how unique or dazzling the world of the story –  it is this inward journey, this ‘character arc’ that binds us with the hero and lets us know that true transformation has been achieved.

Wants and Needs

Very often – as in real life – the hero resists the deeper calling of her soul towards this transformation. And in such cases we witness a schism between the ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ of the character.

By way of  example, consider our hero ‘Rick’ in Casablanca. What he wants is for Ilsa to suffer as much as he suffered; to feel the same pain she caused him. By contrast, what he needs is to let go of his heartache, forgive her for doing the only thing she could, and to man-up to his part in the war.

Or perhaps you’ve seen the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ What its young hero Andy (Anne Hathaway) wants is to ascend to the inner circle of fashion influence and power. To stand beside Meryl Streep on the runways of Paris with all the cameras upon them. The dream job. But what she needs is to see how empty that dream really is. And that this chase for fame has broken everyone it touches. What Andy needs is to learn the value of simple, genuine connection to the friends and fiancé she abandoned.

Simply put, ‘what I want’ is my conscious desire in any situation. Whereas ‘what I need’ is more often my unconscious wisdom about it. The tension between these two things will eventually be resolved through whatever adventure I am living.

When writing – and certainly when evaluating a script – I always look for ways this tension can be put on screen most effectively. Because a conflicted hero is the one we most want to watch.

“Wants and Needs” are just one of the lenses we’ll be using to analyze story in this Spring’s class at UCLA. Along with several key insights into building the kinds of characters likely to attract top talent and bring viewers back for more.

The Course

For those in Los Angeles, I will be teaching the ‘classroom’ sessions of Story Analysis at UCLA Extension, for 12 weeks beginning Wednesday April 5, 2017. Indispensable insights on both story and development for anyone in the creative end of film or tv.