Creating Stronger Characters: Want and Obstacles

By Ron Moskovitz · October 4, 2011

Often, when I’m helping a student with a screenplay, the characters come across as wishy-washy. They seem neither here nor there, floating through the story rather than actively driving it. To help diagnose the problem, I’ll ask the writer what the character wants.

The answer is almost always revealing. Either the student doesn’t know, or they come back with a conflicting answer. “He wants to take care of his sick mom … but he also wants to travel the world” Young screenwriters often resist giving their characters a clear desire line. Real life, they correctly point out, is more nuanced than that. We often want conflicting things: to earn money and to not be tied down to a job; to get married and still have crazy adventures; to get the girl and the promotion.

But in drama, unclear desires quickly turn the entire project into mud, with weak, fuzzy, or reactive characters. So we’re confronted with a real problem: we want living, breathing, three-dimensional characters, who reflect the people we see around us every day.

But how do we mold them into characters that work in the narrow confines of a screenplay without turning them into clichés and stereotypes? How do we capture the nuances of life yet maintain dramatic clarity?

Luckily, there’s a simple two-step approach that can help solve this problem: (1) Figure out the one thing that the character wants, and (2) turn everything else into an obstacle.

For example, let’s say you were writing a drama about a woman who’s torn between career and family. It’s easy to think of her as wanting both – after all, that’s how a lot of us think. We want multiple things. Dramatically, however, it instantly becomes much stronger if you pick either one as her want, and the other as her obstacle. She wants the career, but every time she makes a step forward in her career, problems with her family hold her back.

This makes it easier for the audience to develop a rooting interest for the character. For example, imagine that throughout the entire film our heroine has been working towards a major promotion, and it all comes down to one presentation – one scene. But unbeknownst to her, her sick kid is getting worse, and will soon have to be taken to the hospital.  If both are presented as wants to the audience, the scene would get muddy.  But if the sick child is presented as an obstacle to the successful presentation, the audience can picture outcomes they can hope for (“I hope she can get through the big meeting and get the promotion without her kid calling her,”) and fear (“Oh no, her kid’s getting sick; she’s going to have to leave the meeting before she can give her presentation.”). The balance of hope and fear in the audience defines their engagement to the story.

Notice how your ability, as a writer, to define want and obstacle gives you tremendous flexibility. In this example, if we thought of the kid's health as the primary want, and the meeting as the obstacle, our emotional engagement would be different: “I hope she'll forget about that stupid meeting and go take care of her kid,” and “I'm afraid that she's going to be so focused on her career that she'll miss an important symptom!”

This approach doesn’t only work with dramas. In Avatar, James Cameron’s science fiction action epic, Sam Worthington’s Sully is clearly suffering from his conflicting loyalties to both the human Marines and the otherworldly blue Na'vi, but notice how Cameron expertly puts these conflicting goals in direct conflict. Sully’s ability to work with the N'avi is directly opposed by the pressures his fellow humans put on him. In every scene, you can identify what Sully wants – and that conflicting pressure from the other side is always presented as an obstacle. For example, when Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) suggests that it's time to abort Sully's mission, that he's done enough to get his legs back, it's an obstacle to Sully's growing relationship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the Na'vi. He has to diffuse Quaritch, so he can pursue his true want.

You can also see this on display in comedies. In this year’s Crazy, Stupid Love, Steve Carrell’s Cal Weaver finds himself stuck in a parent-teacher conference with his estranged wife Emily (Julianna Moore) and his one-night stand, Kate (Marisa Tomei in a fantastic, scene-stealing role). It would be easy for this scene to be muddy, if the writer Dan Fogelman had tried to balance the two women as competing wants. Instead, however, the scene becomes a comic set piece as Kate’s desire to punish Cal for his apparent lies becomes an obstacle to Cal’s desire to reconcile with his wife, who he truly loves. Cal’s want is clear. The obstacle is clear, and the scene sings.

Want and obstacle are also how actors are trained to approach your work. When they break down a scene in preparation for playing it, know what they’ll be asking themselves? “What do I want in this scene?” If your screenplay doesn’t contain clear guideposts, their performance will be muddy. Furthermore, directors love it when these desires are clear in the screenplay because when the text is clear, they have a lot of room to work with actors on subtext.

This technique is an application of a key principle, which we will return to time and time again in this column: story is what happens when a character wants something and is having difficulty getting it. In future articles, we’ll look at direct applications of this rule to scenes, sequences, and even entire films.

Train yourself to think in terms of wants and obstacles. Since it’s always easiest to apply a tool like this to someone else’s work first, throw in a DVD of one of your favorite films, and just periodically ask yourself. “What does the character want? Why is he having difficulty getting it?” Once you’ve gotten in the habit of noticing this in films you watch, apply it to your own writing.

You’ll be rewarded with sharper and more compelling characters.