A lot of screenwriting gurus and practitioners out there always point out that the strength of a story hinges on its main character. There’s a reason for this; when we follow a movie or series, what we follow is the journey of its main character. And so the character has to be compelling – we must understand who they are, why they are the way they are now, what they’re going after and why they need to go after it.
A main character isn’t only supposed to look cool. (Though it does help them stand out) No amount of superpowers, prosthetics, costumes and hairspray will save a character that’s just dull and flat. Characters can’t do things just for the sake of doing them. They have to have good reasons for doing so; reasons that the audience will understand so they can rally behind the character to triumph in the end.
So how do you write a movie character that sticks with audiences long after the credits roll? Well, the secret is in their strengths, flaws, wants, needs, outer goals and inner goals.
- STRENGTHS AND FLAWS
No human being ever was born perfect. All of us have our own strengths and flaws. These are exactly what make us human. Thus, as humans, we can relate and empathize with people who have their own weak points.
As a screenwriter, one of the worst things you can do is to create a character who is so perfect, it’s ridiculous. This character, often referred as a Mary Sue, can do no wrong. Audiences aren’t interested in Mary Sues. They want, and will care for characters who have internal problems that need to be solved.
In fact, at the start of your movie, your main character’s flaws should be felt more than his strengths. The flaws are what your main character should spend the entire movie resolving. If your character’s strengths are what make him likable for the audience, the flaws are what makes him compelling enough for the audiences to stay throughout the movie. Nobody wants to spend two hours watching a rich, handsome young man woo every girl he encounters (his strength) into having a one night stand with him. But they’ll be glad to watch that same guy, who has the flaw of being afraid of long-term commitment, struggle to overcome that flaw as he pursues “the one”, the woman of his dreams.
- WANTS AND NEEDS
In the Pixar animated film Inside Out, Riley WANTS to return to Minnesota to be happy again, as her new home San Francisco doesn’t seem to be working out for her. But what she (and us as the audience) realize by the end is that she NEEDS the love and support of her parents to achieve happiness.
A character’s want is what they chase after at the beginning. They believe that their want will get them to their ultimate goal, but this is actually a lie. That’s why they call it “The Lie That The Character Believes”. Usually, this is a surface-level goal: your character wants to do something, be something or go somewhere. For example, you have a character that wants to validate himself, so he WANTS to get the prettiest girl in school!
But if the character’s want is a lie, then what’s the truth? That would be the character’s need.
This is what the character keeps burying through his wants, whether consciously or unconsciously, but eventually he’s going to have to confront it and accept it. The realization of this truth, of this need, is what he’ll need to achieve his goal and become a changed person. And remember, the journey towards change is what compels audiences to follow characters.
Characters must explore their needs deeper within themselves if they are to change. Once they do, their objectives change from pursuing their want and keeping the lie alive, to nourishing their needs and accepting the truth. Doing so completes their character arc, and allows them to conquer the antagonist and achieve their ultimate goal. Returning to the example above, this is where the character realizes that what he NEEDED all along was self-love, and not the love of someone else, to validate himself.
- OUTER GOALS AND INNER GOALS
An outer goal is the tangible thing that your main character pursues throughout the story. Wanting to steal a diamond, getting the job, killing the mob boss – these are all outer, surface-level goals. You can also call these objective goals, since everyone knows what you’re doing.
The question is, why is your character doing it?
The answer to this question is your character’s inner goal. This is more subjective since only your character knows the motive behind his actions. He wants to steal a diamond to pay for his mother’s surgery. She wants to get the job to prove herself to her family. He wants to kill the mob boss to avenge the death of his daughter.
These are the reasons why your main character will do everything to achieve their outer goals, and what makes them more compelling for audiences. Because they can empathize with the need to pay for your dying mother’s surgery, the need to prove oneself to your family or the need to avenge the unjust killing of one’s daughter, they will root for your main character.
One way to distinguish between the two is that the outer goal serves the movie’s plot, while the inner goal serves your character. If the outer goal’s purpose is to fulfill your character’s want, then the inner goal aims to fulfill your character’s need. Come up with a great inner goal behind your character’s outer goal and your audience will want to stick with your character to see him transform in the end.
These elements are essential whenever you write your characters. Audiences can be drawn to watching a movie through an attention-grabbing trailer or an interesting premise line, but at the end of the day, compelling characters are what makes them watch from start to finish. Flesh out your characters completely from the inside and out, and you’ll have an easier time writing a screenplay that’s an absolute page turner.