Ida: The Search for Identity and Creating Captivating Characters

By Susan Kouguell · February 25, 2015


“You’re Jewish.”

These few words are revelatory in the Oscar-winning Ida, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.

The setting; 1962 post-Stalin Poland.

A few days from taking her vows at the convent where she was raised, Anna, a naive orphan and young novice, learns the existence of Wanda — her aunt. A former state prosecutor, the cynical Wanda is part of the Communist elite.

These two women are distinct characters. Wanda drinks heavily, chain-smokes and has one-night stands. Indeed, she is the opposite of her niece; worldly versus sheltered, atheist versus believer.

Wanda reveals key secrets from Anna’s past: Anna’s birth name is Ida, and she is Jewish. This revelation advances the narrative forward, prompting Wanda and Ida to venture together on a journey to discover what happened to Ida’s parents during the Nazi occupation.

Characters’ specific journeys — their experiences as they attempt to achieve their goals and what they learn about themselves and others—are the basis of defining a screenplay’s themes. The theme is what your story is about; it is the central idea or dominant subject matter that reoccurs throughout your screenplay. Examples of themes include redemption, survival, empowerment, alienation, and triumph over adversity. In Ida, the two central themes are identity and secrets of the past.

Ida can be categorized as a ‘Road Film’ — Ida and Wanda take to the road to discover what happened to Ida’s parents.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays I write:

In road films, protagonists experience their journeys; learn about themselves and others, sometimes discover love or face adversity, and often find redemption, literally during their travels. The protagonists’ encounters with other characters change, influence, and/or create additional obstacles in their lives.

In this character-driven film, Ida and Wanda’s journey uncovers more than the discovery of Ida’s family’s past, it highlights these two women’s behaviors, needs and wants.

Film executives seek captivating, original and plausible plots and multi-dimensional, credible and empathetic characters whose journeys drive the plot.

How do you do this?

Develop characters with specific emotional, mental, physical and/or social behaviors and traits, and demonstrate how your characters see themselves and how they relate to others. Characters’ journeys both off and on the road must be engaging.

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: — “Life is a journey, not a destination” — a good script is often about the characters’ journey and not necessarily about their destination.



Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at SUNY College at Purchase and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (  Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Susan’s latest book SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, is available at $1.00 off on using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD.  On Kindle: (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog:

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