Reader Question: What to do if I’m good with plot, but weak with characters?

October 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @MahinWriter:

My issue: I can outline plot, but my character arcs feel weak. Got a blog post for that!?

It’s an important question and I appreciate you asking it, Michael, because with all the emphasis on screenplay structure in the online screenwriting universe — and by structure, most ‘gurus’ mean plot — there are a lot of script floating around that where writers hit the mark in terms of plot points and page count, but have created formulaic stories with little or no emotional resonance. And where should that emotional resonance come from? Why, characters, of course!

So the short answer is this: Spend more time with your characters! How to develop them? Try these techniques:

Questionnaire: A series of questions about your characters. Here is an example:

What is your name?

How old are you?

How would you describe your physical appearance?

How do you feel about the way you look?

Who are your parents?

Describe your relationship with your mother.

Describe your relationship with your father.

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?

Are you in love?

If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.

If not, why not?

Describe what your soul-mate would be like.

Do you believe in God?

If so, describe your relationship with God.

If not, why not?

When did you stop believing in God?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?

What do you do for a living?

If you like your job, explain why.

If not explain why not.

In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?

Please fill in the following…

My biggest strengths are…

My biggest weaknesses are…

I am most proud of…

I am most ashamed of…

I am most angry about…

And finally, be as honest as you can with this question…

I am most afraid of…

Biography: You act as historian and construct a life for your character, focusing on key relationships and events that may come into play in terms of their personality and events in your story.

Interview: Assume the role of a reporter, police detective, someone with a vested interest in getting information from a character, then go at them in the first person voice.

Sit-downs: This is the most ‘mystical’ of the techniques, but can also be one of the most valuable. Close the door, shut off your phone, sit at your computer, put your hands on your keyboard, close your eyes, and summon up an image of the character in question. If you can’t form a face, focus on one prominent feature — hands, hair, shoes, eyes. Then sit with them… and type. Don’t open your eyes, don’t edit what you’re typing, just write down the impressions, thoughts and feelings that come into your consciousness. Do this at least for a half-hour. Now what you end up with may be 90% misspelled crap, but even if just 10% of what you have on paper is gold, you’re ahead of the game. And in my experience, that 10% is often essential stuff, keys to the character. Do this exercise with all of your primary characters. You may choose to do it several times with your Protagonist and others over the course of your prep-writing as they evolve to check in with them.

Archetypes: At some point, it’s helpful to drill down and see what your main characters’ essential narrative function is, then you can ascribe to them one of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. But there are a whole host of other archetypes and you can consider each of your main characters in relation to them from a list like this one. For instance a Mentor who is a martyr is entirely different than a thief, an Attractor who is a virgin is different than a femme fatale.

Bottom line you are trying to do three things: (1) Go into your characters so you dig up key aspects of who they are. (2) Identify what their respective narrative functions are. (3) Understand how they work together as an ensemble especially in relation to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis journey.

Through that, hopefully the characters will come to life in your imagination and in your writing, it will be much more about them telling the story than you, and your plot will benefit from it.

Readers, do you have any other suggestions? Please head to comments and opine away!

Reader Question: What are some ways to visualize the inner world of a character?

October 2nd, 2014 by

From Anton:

I would be really interested in hearing from you on methods of how to show the inner world of a protagonist, in pictures rather than using a voice over. For example, in the french film ”A Prophet”, the protagonist speaks to the ghost of the man he killed, wich I understand is a way of showing how the protagonist copes with the pressure of being locked up in prison and learning from that experience. Or, why not, in Black Swan, where the protagonist’s inner conflicts are shown in hallucinative visions of seeing her self… I guess there are a million other ways, and I would love a discussion of that.

Best regards from Sweden and a struggling writer.

First off Anton, I think it’s safe to say that all writers are struggling writers, at least in the sense that tasked with wrangling a story into being, that process is almost assuredly a challenging one. So from one struggling writer to another — I greet you in the name of Creativity!

I applaud your instinct to push to find a visual way to communicate what is transpiring in a story’s Internal World. One of the most common errors I see when teaching college students is they tend to rely on dialogue to carry the story. I remind them often: Movies are primarily a visual medium. They are known as motion pictures. Both words spotlight film’s visual essence.

The two examples you note are instances where something the character was experiencing inside is projected into the External World in the form of visions, one of them to the point where the Protagonist is able to communicate with the ‘ghost.’ Other examples of that: Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Parcher in A Beautiful Mind.

You can also take the reader inside a character’s mind. A great example of that occurs in American Beauty where Lester has recurring fantasies about Angela:

Something similar are flashbacks where the reader – again – goes inside the mind of a character to remember a specific event in the character’s past. There’s a notable moment like that in the movie Ordinary People in which Conrad has a breakthrough as he remembers the drowning death of his brother:

Of course one obvious way characters convey what is going on inside is through their actions, sometimes in direct opposition to their words. There’s a famous example of this in It’s a Wonderful Life:

George Bailey says he doesn’t want any plastics, he doesn’t want any ground floors, he doesn’t want to get married ever. But then, his actions show otherwise as he and Mary end up in a major clinch.

Those are some examples. How about it, GITS readers: What other ways can a writer expose what is going on in a character’s inner world besides through dialogue?

[Originally posted Mar 18, 2011]

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 4: Character = Function

June 19th, 2014 by

Yesterday we looked at one basic screenwriting principle: Plot = Structure. Today another one:

Character = Function

There are three points worth making re this principle. The first is pretty simple: Every character in a screenplay has to be there for a reason. That reason is their narrative function, how who they are and what they do is tied to the story’s narrative. This pertains at a macro and micro level: Each character has a function to the overall narrative as well as to each scene.

The idea of character = function is specifically relevant to screenplays which are unique literary forms. They are shorter than novels, therefore the story is more compressed. As screenwriters, we have to be judicious in the choices we make re our characters, and the best way I know to make those decisions and shape the roster of our story’s characters is to identify their respective narrative functions.

This may be a foreign concept to you. You may even bristle at the idea. Characters are supposed to be multilayered, flesh-and-blood individuals. How do I get there as a writer thinking about them in terms of function? This leads me to my second point:

Determining a character’s narrative function helps you to understand their core essence. Once you grasp what is at the foundation of a character’s being, then you can develop their entire psychological construct guided by that knowledge.

Take Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He is a vicious killer, nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” because his propensity is to eat his victims. If we just looked at Lecter from those surface details, we might be inclined to think that he is the story’s Nemesis character. But I would suggest that is not the case. In my view, Lecter’s narrative function is to provide key information in the movie’s serial killer case and force the Protagonist Clarice Starling to confront the seminal events of her past — her father’s murder, being orphaned, shipped off to her uncle’s farm in Montana, witnessing the spring slaughter of the lambs, trying to escape with one of the lambs — in order for her to find the courage to take on her real Nemesis character Buffalo Bill.

In other words, Lecter’s narrative function is Mentor, guiding Clarice through the Buffalo Bill case file and into her psychoanalytic ‘treatment’. The knowledge of Lecter’s core essence in relation to the Protagonist doubtless informed novelist Thomas Harris and screenwriter Ted Tally as they crafted his character.

My third point: In most movies, there are five main narrative functions at work, characterized by these primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Nemesis, Trickster. For example, here is the character archetype breakdown for The Silence of the Lambs:

Protagonist – Clarice Starling
Nemesis – Buffalo Bill
Attractor – Catherine Martin (kidnap victim)
Mentor – Hannibal Lecter
Trickster – Dr. Alex Chilton

I see these five character archetypes in movie after movie after movie. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that there may be an innate structure of Protagonist-Nemesis-Attractor-Mentor-Trickster akin to Aristotle’s idea of a story having a Beginning, Middle, and End and Joseph Campbell’s articulation of The Hero’s Journey.

In any event, a screenwriter is well-advised to develop and shape their characters with at least one eye on their respective narrative functions.

Note: In the book “The Silence of the Lambs,” Jack Crawford, the FBI official who assigns Clarice to interview Lecter, then brings her onto the Buffalo Bill case, is more of an Attractor character, intended to be a surrogate father figure. In the movie, Crawford’s role is cut down significantly from the script — which is cut down already quite a bit from the book — so that he comes off more as a Trickster.

To learn more about my theory of character archetypes, you can read these blog posts in which I analyze several movies from this perspective:

The Wizard of Oz

True Grit

Inception

The Silence of the Lambs

The Town

Bridesmaids

Shakespeare In Love

Gladiator

Up

Star Trek

This week, I’ll be posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious.

Character = Function

September 2nd, 2013 by

In a screenplay, characters exist for a reason. Unlike a novel, a writer doesn’t have unlimited time to introduce characters willy nilly, rather the limitations of a script’s length compels us to handle characters with one eye always on how they connect to the plot. Moreover almost all movies feature a Protagonist who goes through some sort of metamorphosis. As a result, it’s almost certain all of the primary and even secondary characters in a story tie into and support the Protagonist’s transformation.

All of this translates into a 3rd essential screenwriting principle I teach in the Core content of The Quest:

Character = Function

This may sound reductionist. It is precisely the opposite. Much like an actor asks, “What’s my motivation,” digging down into the core of their character’s persona, so, too, do we as screenwriters delve into characters to determine what their core essence is and how that plays out in terms of their respective narrative functions. Once we make those discoveries, we can shape our characters in unlimited ways, all the while playing to how they function in relation to the narrative.

That is the starting point of Core III: Character, a 1-week online class I will be teaching starting on Monday, September 9. In this course, you will learn about:

* Five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster

* Protagonist Metamorphosis Arc

* Nemesis as opposition and ‘shadow’

* Attractor as the character most connected to a Protagonist’s emotional development

* Mentor as the character most connected to a Protagonist’s intellectual development

* Trickster as the character who tests the Protagonist’s will

* Different Protagonist paradigms

* Working with archetypes and switching Protagonists

And much more. The course consists of four components:

  • Lectures: There are six lectures written by me, each posting Monday through Saturday.
  • Writing Exercises: These optional exercises offer you the opportunity to workshop one of your own loglines and receive feedback from class members and myself.
  • Teleconference: We will have a Skype teleconference call to discuss course material.
  • Forums: The online course site has forums where you may post questions / comments.

We will analyze the following movies: The Wizard of Oz, The Apartment, The Silence of the Lambs, Slumdog Millionaire, Citizen Kane, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Life Is Beautiful,

For those of you who have not taken an online class, the interface is extremely easy. Plus online classes can be an amazing experience. Most of the activities you can do on your own time — download and read lectures, review and respond to forum discussions, upload loglines and track comments. In addition, I’ve been teaching online for over a decade and it never ceases to amaze me how much of a community emerges in such an environment.

Core III: Character is one of eight classes in the Core curriculum. Here is the schedule for all of them this fall, the only time I will be offering these courses in 2013:

August 26: Core I: Plot

September 2: Core II: Concept

September 9: Core III: Character

September 16: Core IV: Style

September 30: Core V: Dialogue

October 21: Core VI: Scene

November 4: Core VII: Theme

November 18: Core VIII: Time

Choose one or two depending upon your interests and needs. Or if you’re really serious and want to save some coin (nearly 50% off), consider The Core Package which gives you immediate access to the content for all eight Core classes which you can go through at your own pace, as well as the option of taking each 1-week online course.

“Joining Scott’s class is one of the best decisions anyone could make when deciding to embark on the journey of writing a screenplay. His passion for teaching and screenwriting could not be more inspirational. I couldn’t wish for a better teacher and mentor!” — Theodora von Auersperg

I have spent years studying Carl Jung, who was a huge influence on Joseph Campbell, and as the Hero’s Journey may act as a paradigm for narrative generally, I am convinced there is a similar universality in movies relative to these five character archetypes. Moreover these archetypes are a key to character-based screenwriting, providing writers a non-formulaic way to engage the story-crafting process.

For information on Core III: Character, which begins September 9, go here.

For The Core Package, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 3: Character

August 2nd, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 3 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Character, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core III: Character, working through six lectures I have written building off the 3rd Essential Screenwriting Principle: Character = Function.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on Character Monday asking this question: Are you more comfortable writing character or plot? You can read that discussion here. Tuesday this question: What techniques do you use to develop your characters? That discussion here. Wednesday: Why is the Protagonist so important to a story? Discussion here. Yesterday’s question: Why is a Nemesis so important to a story? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* How do fill out your story’s cast of characters?

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core II: Concept starting Monday, September 2. More information on that 1-week online class here.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions about Concept. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 3: Character

August 1st, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 3 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Character, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core III: Character, working through six lectures I have written building off the 3rd Essential Screenwriting Principle: Character = Function.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on Character Monday asking this question: Are you more comfortable writing character or plot? You can read that discussion here. Tuesday this question: What techniques do you use to develop your characters? That discussion here. Yesterday: Why is the Protagonist so important to a story? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* Why is a Nemesis so important to a story?

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core III: Character starting Monday, September 9. More information on that 1-week online class here.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions about Concept. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

Write a Worthy Nemesis

More Related Discussions

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 3: Character

July 31st, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 3 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Character, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core III: Character, working through six lectures I have written building off the 3rd Essential Screenwriting Principle: Character = Function.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on Character Monday asking this question: Are you more comfortable writing character or plot? You can read that discussion here. Yesterday this question: What techniques do you use to develop your characters? That discussion here. Today another question:

* Why is the Protagonist so important to a story?

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core III: Character starting Monday, September 9. More information on that 1-week online class here.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions about Concept. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

Create a Compelling Protagonist

More Related Discussions

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 3: Character

July 30th, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 3 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Character, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core III: Character, working through six lectures I have written building off the 3rd Essential Screenwriting Principle: Character = Function.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on Character yesterday asking this question: Are you more comfortable writing character or plot? You can read that discussion here. Today another question:

* What techniques do you use to develop your characters?

Biographies, questionnaires, interviews, 1st person monologues, etc. How do you dig into, understand and bring to life your characters?

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core III: Character starting Monday, September 9. More information on that 1-week online class here.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go here.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions about Concept. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 3: Character

July 29th, 2013 by

The 2013 version of The Quest starts Week 3 today. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Character, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core III: Character, working through six lectures I have written building off the 3rd Essential Screenwriting Principle: Character = Function.

Characters are the players in our stories. They participate in scenes, move the plot forward through action and dialogue, influence each other, evolve and change. Each has their own distinct backstory, personality, world view, and voice. When a writer does their best, digging deep into their characters, tapping into their souls, the players in our stories magically lift up off the printed page and come to life in a reader’s imagination.

A lofty goal. And where to start the character development process? By zeroing in on their Core Essence, what lies at the foundation of who that character is. In doing that, you not only discover something essential to their being, you also go a long way in understanding what their function is within the context of your story.

I am not talking about novels. I am talking about screenplays. As screenwriters, we have 100-120 pages within which to introduce and handle a cast of characters, manage the central plot and numerous subplots, and hope that in the end we have told a whacking good story. Unlike a novelist, we don’t have the freedom to go off for 20 pages, veering into the personal history of a character because a script averages just 60 scenes from FADE IN to FADE OUT. As screenwriters we are forced to focus our characters and their respective narrative functions simply to survive the relentless push forward from P. 1 to P. 2 to P. 3 and so on.

Why not use the structure of this 24-week workshop to Go On Your Own Quest? That was an idea that gathered energy among many members of the GITS community which I described here:

The first eight weeks, we will focus on eight essential screenwriting principles, reflecting the content of what the participants in The Quest will be learning. The content I present publicly won’t be nearly as in-depth as that in The Quest proper, but the subjects and some of the ideas will be the same. What I’m hoping is that each week as we work through these eight subject areas — Plot, Concept, Character, Style, Dialogue, Scene, Theme, Time — the GITS community will engage in a wide-ranging conversation that will deepen and perhaps even change your understanding of screenwriting theory.

During this phase, I will be challenging you to do two things: (1) Generate story concepts with the goal of coming up with a killer idea for you to write as you Go On Your Own Quest. You may think you have a good idea now. Fine. Use these next eight weeks to come up with a better one. (2) Read scripts and watch movies that are similar but different to the story you want to write. This is not only about research, it’s also about priming your creative juices and centering your energy in that specific story area.

Here is the schedule for the first eight weeks of Go On Your Own Quest:

July 15-21: Plot

July 22-28: Concept

July 29-August 4: Character

August 5-August 11: Style

August 12-August 18: Dialogue

August 19-August 25: Scene

August 26-September 1: Theme

September 2-September 8: Time

Then on September 19, you can move into the next phase of Go On Your Own Quest, where you spend six weeks prepping your story.

And on October 21, you can type FADE IN, then over a ten week period write your first draft.

Again all of this is free.

If you plan to participate in the Go On Your Own Quest challenge, you have 6 weeks before we move into the Prep part of the process. In that time, I challenge you to get to know your characters. Find the Core Essence of each of the primary ones. Consider what their respective narrative functions are. In a perfect world, they will lead you into and through the story-crafting process.

For now, we can kick off the Week 3 discussion with this question:

* Are you more comfortable writing characters or plot? Why?

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core III: Character starting Monday, September 9. More information on that 1-week online class here.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go here.

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Onward!

Reader Question: Structure is character. Agree or disagree and why?

March 8th, 2013 by

Art asks:

Structure is character. Agree or disagree and why?

If by structure you mean story structure or plot, and if by character you mean the characters in a story, and if your implication is a story’s plot should arise from character, I agree 100%. However I have a bit of a different language system.

My first screenwriting principle is this:

Plot = Structure

Screenplays are unique narrative forms in that they are a blueprint to produce a movie, so naturally there is, as there ought to be, a significant focus on their structure. But more than that, as Aristotle indicated with his articulation of beginning, middle, and end, Joseph Campbell with The Hero’s Journey, and others, there are innate universal elements to story, a sense of structure all humans share, both consciously and subconsciously. So when we talk about plot – and in particular a screenplay or TV script plot – we are first and foremost talking about structure.

My second screenwriting principle is this:

Character = Function

Just as there are innate aspects of story we share as human beings, there are also universal character archetypes, five of which we see in movie after movie: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. The reason these character types are ubiquitous is they provide necessary functions in the metamorphosis process that most Protagonists go through in movies. For in the two realms of a screenplay universe — the External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline) — the Protagonist’s psychological journey is almost always one grappling with their fundamental sense of Disunity, forced to confront the many varied aspects of their psyche, these ideas articulated, of course, by Carl Jung.

The beauty of approaching the story-crafting process from this vantage point is that for the first time – at least to my knowledge – we can truly put flesh on the bones of the old adage, “Character is plot.” Starting with the Protagonist, we begin a process of discovery that reveals what lies at the heart of their Disunity, an end point (Unity), characters who engage the Protagonist in their metamorphosis journey, and a Plotline that serves as a backbone for the overall story. All of that and everything else in the story emerging from the characters.

So do I agree “structure is character?” Basically yes, although as indicated above, I have a slightly different language system.

By the way, these two principles are two of eight I teach through Screenwriting Master Class in eight Core classes. Plus I use them with writers in the Prep: From Concept to Outline, Pages I: The First Draft, and Pages II: Rewriting Your Script workshops. In combination, I think these principles and corollary ideas represent a truly unique and cutting edge approach to screenwriting, starting the process where it should begin — with characters.

[Originally posted May 18, 2011]

NOTE: My next session of Prep: From Concept to Outline begins Monday. Learn a professional approach to working out your story and use it for all your future writing projects. Plus you actually speed up your first draft process and increase your chances of finishing the script by wrangling your story in prep. Sign up here.