Beyond Description: The Essence of Character

It is the lifeblood of any story. The essence. The heart. Yet it is the one thing I have found is sorely missing from many of the scripts I’ve read from amateur writers. The character is the element of any story in which determines all things: theme, ending, arc, and even tone. The choices your character makes tells us who they are.  Remember that, I know it’s that hokey quote from Batman Begins, but it is what your character does that defines them. But what does this mean? We’ve all read the infinite amount of Screenwriting books by countless, faceless “Guru’s” that claim all your character has to have a compelling script is a need and a want, or, in other words, a goal.  

That’s fine and dandy, and I’ve seen lots of writers give their characters goals, and often a straight path to the finish line. I think the pratfall that so many writers tend to lean on is a clean and elegant description of their character something to the tune of:

KAITLIN RODRIGUEZ (30’s) sexy but doesn’t know it. She steams with intelligence and isn’t above using sex to get her way, but her tough demeanor hides a vulnerability begging to scratch the surface.

Sure, I’ve even seen descriptions like these in even professional scripts; however, the difference is that the professional Screenwriter will leave an air of mystery about their character. Something missing. Something, for which their character works for, and in the process, reveals themselves to the audience. New writers put so much work into this description and…. that’s it. They’ve done the work; they’ve said it so it must be true throughout the script, but they do not follow through on their promise.

It is here where the importance of your character comes in. If their actions are not following through with your description or, even better, subverting the expectation of your character, then there is a very good chance you may have created a flat character.  

Let’s look at another example. Look at yourself. You handsome writer you. Is writing what you want to do with your life? I’m assuming so, but how are you gonna achieve this goal of yours?  Are you the kind of person who lives far away so your options are few and far between while you work a full-time job, provide for a family? Would you be willing to uproot that family for that dream?  Or, perhaps, are you the young and hungry post-film school graduate eager to do anything and everything to get what you want. Do you schmooze, lie maybe perform some cliché sexual favors just to have a chance at a movie?

Notice how when presented, the choices a character makes completely changes who they are.

“We need to feel comfortable enough with a character to begin writing – enough to be able to imagine how she negotiates the world of the narrative, how she interacts with other characters and at least a little of why she behaves the way she does. “  –David Corbett 

Always leave a little bit of mystery, space for your character to venture into or not. That will allow your character to make choices that will add complexity to your story and push them to their very limits. If anything, it is not simply just the goal and the need that reveal your character to us, but the conflict that your character ultimately must overcome. If things are too easy, the audience can’t feel for your character. Put them through the wringer, make ‘em work for it, have them pay their dues just as you’re paying yours.  

How they go about this will ultimately show the audience who your character is. Always remember for film/TV, showing is always better than telling, and it can be done in more economic ways than long speeches of exposition.

If you find that character is something you have difficulty I highly recommend reading David Corbett’s The Art of Character. A book that skips all the talk about plot, points, three-act structure that every book talks about and focuses on the sole importance of the only thing that truly will carry your script, character.

Or, if the idea of reading one more book on writing sends you into a dry heave, may I recommend an exercise. This one comes from Michael Clayton screenwriter, Tony Gilroy.

Write a scene, don’t worry this won’t be a centerpiece of your script this is just for you – or if you think it’s a good enough piece to place in a scene who am I to say? But for now, this is just for you.

In this scene sit the character down with another character, be it adversary, mentor, or lover. And write out a sincere dialogue about what your writer wants. What are his motives for getting it? This can be as on the nose or subtle as you want, but if you take this moment in your writing to really hear your character out, you may just discover exactly how they tick. Do this for jut one or all your characters. It can be incredibly helpful and cathartic, but it will help you to flesh out those characters beyond what we see on the outside.