The plot sells the story, but the characters make it real.
A great story means nothing if the audience is not interested or invested in the characters. This does not mean that films need a cast of perfect and likeable characters. In fact, that’s a common mistake that many aspiring screenwriters make.
Film is an art form that attempts to mimic reality. It has to accomplish this to some degree in order to relate to the audience. Reality, be it the past, present or future, is always full of a wide range of people, both good and bad. Take a look at your own life. How many people have you met that are inspiring, or awful, or just plain annoying?
Screenplays that are full of perfect people, getting along, and always achieving their goals is unrealistic and boring. In order to writer a compelling screenplay, there needs to be conflict, division and obstacles. You need to manipulate the emotions of your audience through the use of dynamic characters.
WHAT IS A “DYNAMIC” CHARACTER?
The first step in this process is to have a cast of characters that are interesting, flawed, and contradicting. All good stories have characters that we love with all our heart and others that we despise. That being said, it’s important to ensure that no character is “all good” or “all bad”. People are complex and flawed. Your characters should mirror that.
Great writers can make audience love a character in one scene and then hate them in another. While this is not recommended for every character (as you will drive your audience crazy!), it is this kind of manipulation that all screenwriters need to master.
Creating dynamic characters is not as hard as it sounds, provided a few key elements are established. The first is that every character must have a flaw that will serve as a weakness throughout the story. This should be something outside of their physical appearance.
Let's take a look at Cersei from Game of Thrones. She is an awful and deeply evil person. Yet, she has one relatable “flaw” that keeps her from being completely horrid: she loves her children more than life, and will do anything for them. This humanizes her. We can still hate her, but we can also understand her.
Another example is Brienne of Tarth, also from Game of Thrones . She is noble, strong and intrinsically good. There is not a bad bone in her body. Yet, she too has a flaw. It’s “loyalty”. Now, loyalty is likely not a trait that one would associate with being a flaw, but it’s all about how the writer paints it. In Brienne’s case, her loyalty to those she serves is so strong that it blinds her from reality. She acts without thinking and often loses sight of what she wants. Her selflessness neglects her own desires, causing her to seem cold to those who know her.
These two characters demonstrate two different versions of what flaws can accomplish. In Cersei’s case it humanizes her, while in Brienne’s case, it does the opposite. This is a perfect example of ensuring that no one is all good or all bad.
A lot of writers fall into the trap of only writing characters that they like. I urge those writers to create characters they hate, to write lines that make them cringe, and to create flaws that seem impossible to overcome. Only then will you truly be writing dynamic characters.
Storylines are just as important in defining characters that are dynamic. Their choices will determine their path. Now that you have flawed characters, their actions are not always predictable. How many times in your life have you made a decision that you thought was right, only to look back and see how obviously wrong it was? I certainly have made my fair share of mistakes.
Your characters should endure that same kind of turmoil. A choice that may be obvious the audience, might not be to the character. As a writer, you need to put yourself in your characters mind and remember that they don’t know the whole scope of the story. They don’t know how it will end. All they know is what they’ve experienced so far. Use this to your advantage.
The more “bad” choices your characters make, the more interesting your story becomes. Impossible situations are endlessly fascinating, especially when your characters somehow find a way out of them! This level of excitement, frustration and tension will cause your audience to be more interested.
Do a little test. Write a scene and force your character to do the opposite of what you think they should do. How does the outcome change? How does the conflict change? Is the scene more interesting because of it? This is not a surefire “fix”, but it is a good exercise that will test the dramatic tension within a scene.
It’s entertaining to see characters mess up as it leaves the audience with a string of questions. How will they get out of this one? Why did they do that? What’s going to happen next?
This is a big part of why the Game of Thrones series is so popular. The writers go out of their way to make the characters choose the wrong path. It’s frustrating, but it’s also endlessly fascinating.
PLAYING THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
You should know the end of your screenplay before you begin to write it, but you don’t need to know how your character gets there. The problem writers have with this method is that they write to finish instead of writing to engage.
When you’re writing to finish there is little conflict as you are likely choosing the easiest route for your character. This generates a screenplay with poor conflict, easy obstacles and no tension. Instead, I urge you to play the devil’s advocate more. Instead of allowing the “best case scenario” to happen, force your character into the “worst case scenario” and see what happens.
Game of Thrones is a master of this. The general motto of the show seems to be “assume the worst, because it’s going to happen.” There are hundreds of examples of this throughout the series. The writers play with our emotions. They let us believe that something good is going to happen, only to rip it away before it does. This is what causes the show to be so addictive.
So, do yourself a favor and play the devil’s advocate every now and then. You don’t have to take it to the same degree that Game of Thrones does (how many times have we seen the Starks being seconds away from a reunion?), but it should happen at least a few times within your screenplay.
By doing so, your characters journeys will become much more compelling and their story arcs much stronger.