Character Relationships: Families Who Get Along and Those Who Don’t

Conveying your characters’ dynamics and their layered and complex relationships is an essential element when writing a savvy screenplay. Characters with specific opinions, attitudes and points of view, and what they need and want from their relationships, will give your screenplay the necessary depth to grab the attention of film industry folks.

Characters’ wants, needs and goals can motivate them to seek help from one character for advice and assistance, or slyly befriend another character to achieve a goal. Relationships can be judgmental or nonjudgmental, one character can hold the other accountable for his or her actions, or assist the other through a challenging time.

The opening night film of the recent 2015 ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival The Finishers (directed by Nils Tavernier, screenplay by Nils Tavernier, Laurent Bertoni and Pierre Leyssieux), is a drama, centering on a father and son relationship. The film was inspired by the true story of Team Hoyt — Dick Hoyt and his son Rick Hoyt (with cerebral palsy), the Massachusetts father and son duo, who competed in dozens of races from 1977-2014.

The Finishers Synopsis: (courtesy ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival)

At 17 years old, Julien has a great sense of humor, bags of charm, and cerebral palsy. In a bid to bond with his father, Julien challenges him to participate with him in the Ironman race in Nice, France, a triathlon in which his father has previously competed. Doing the race alone is an incredible challenge, but completing it together with Julien would be nearly impossible. Still, his father agrees and the two set out to train for and compete in one of the most intense races on earth. Beyond the sporting exploit, this is the story of one family’s exemplary journey, and a moving portrait of the love between a father and his son.

While a story about the triumph of this father and son team, the plot of The Finishers also reveals the challenges of Julien’s mother, Claire, who has been Julien’s primary caregiver due to husband Paul’s emotional and (work-related) physical absence. An interesting triangulated relationship emerges when Julien, who is about to turn 18, finds himself in the middle of this shifting mother/son/father and father/son/mother relationship.

In my book, Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays I write:

Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.  

Complex mother/daughter relationships are depicted in such films as Terms of Endearment (written and directed by James L. Brooks), as seen in the stubborn and independence-seeking Emma and her possessive widowed mother Aurora, and in Mildred Pierce, (directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Ranald MacDougall) in which Mildred, an overly devoted and hardworking mother, sacrifices everything for Veda, her spoiled, ungrateful, and insufferable daughter.  

Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson). In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.  


The various ways characters relate to each other and the types of relationships they have, add the necessary layers of depth and conflict in a screenplay. Whether your plot centers on characters dealing with complicated family dynamics, attempting to find true love in their lives, or struggling to win a competition, as in The Finishers, develop your characters’ goals, and their expectations and desires for their relationships.


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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