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Screenwriting 102: Recipe for the Perfect Character


Screenwriting 101 established the basics of the little-known art of screenwriting, from its history to format and prevalent theories. The screenplay does not belong to literature or film but is an art form of its own with unique language, technique, and storytelling devices. Screenwriting 102 is an advanced course that dives into the finer details and kinks of the script. Having a screenwriting foundation is essential to understanding advanced notions as theories come under the scrutiny of practice. Previous lessons aimed to show a clear path and solid base for the beginner, taking them by the hand and carefully guiding them, avoiding complex ideas. Now is the time to explore difficult terrain. Screenwriting 102 presents practical conceptions that, at first glance, are quite ambiguous. From the true form of a story to critical analysis and character creation, this course focuses on the practical application of screenplay components. Screenplay writing is far from being as simple as respecting a prescribed structure. It is an extremely malleable medium that offers countless possibilities once the writer understands the cogs of story and screenwriting.

Screenwriting 102 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Screenwriting 102: Uncovering the Truth of Story Design

  2. Screenwriting 102: Journey to the Center of a Script

  3. Screenwriting 102: Recipe for the Perfect Character

  4. Screenwriting 102: Tune in - Analysis of TV Script Structure

  5. Screenwriting 102: Binge Watching - Analysis of Popular Show Structures

  6. Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene

Screenwriting 102: Recipe for the Perfect Character

Conflicts are the source of all great stories (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 50). Navigating through these conflicts are characters. According to the author of Story (1997), Robert McKee, a protagonist must adapt to each gap opposing their quest to reach their desire. McKee (1997) along with many other theorists suggests that screenplays actually tell two stories (p. 187; Trottier, 2014, p. 41; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 13; Brody, 2018, p. 10). From the unconscious desire to flaws and strengths, these stories are driven by a protagonist. Blake Snyder (2005) conceived structure through the main character’s experience of the story (thesis, antithesis and synthesis). Dan Harmon (2003) and Joseph Campbell (1949) thought similarly, creating a circle in which the hero exits their familiar environment and descends into an unknown world before being transformed and returning to a known world. The character’s journey is deftly outlined by these structure theories. However, who is the character? If “structure is character” (McKee, 1997, p. 101), then, in some way or another, a protagonist must be built. These authors have provided a first clue with their ideas on contradicting desires, flaws, and strengths (Campbell, 1949; McKee, 1997; Harmon, 2003; Snyder 2005; Trottier, 2014; Chamberlain, 2016; Brody, 2018). Nonetheless, character creation goes beyond a protagonist's desires in the overall story structure.

Firstly, this chapter’s title must be debunked. There is no such thing as a recipe for a perfect character, only ingredients to create them. Every character will need a specific plot designed just for them (Brody, 2018, p. 17). Consequently, variation will occur between each protagonist. Just like a story structure, the only true rule for creating a character is “don’t be boring” (Akers, 2008, p. 27). The story must be interesting and so should the character (Akers, 2008, p. 40). However, an element to highlight is that protagonists do not have to be likable or sympathetic (Trottier, 2014, p. 83). Rather, they must invoke empathy (McKee, 1997, p. 138). Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! (2005) championed the idea that protagonists must be likable, as demonstrated by the title of his book. To save the cat means showing a scene where the protagonist performs a good action, like saving a cat (Snyder, 2005, p. 121). This idea stems from the belief that a protagonist must be liked by the audience in order to identify with them (Snyder, 2005, p. xv). As thoroughly discussed in The Problem of Likability in Protagonists this line of thought is proven incorrect (Praet, 2023). Empathy and sympathy are two key components used when approaching character. These concepts, in addition to plot, are studied extensively in previous chapters of Screenwriting 101 and Screenwriting 102 and therefore are relegated as background information (Praet, 2023).

Figure 1: Aladdin steals bread and gives it to children in need. Still from "Aladdin" (Clements & Musker, 1992).

Secondly, there has been much debate throughout history about whether structure or character is more important in a screenplay (McKee, 1997, p. 101). Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) came to the conclusion that structure was more important than any characters (McKee, 1997, p. 101). During the 19th century, it was believed that fascinating and complex characters were more important (McKee, 1997, p. 101). As outlined throughout the Screenwriting 102, structure is character; there is no distinction to be made between the two. A character’s actions throughout a story determine the structure (McKee, 1997, p. 102). All stories are made up of beginnings, middles, and endings; character action will inevitably travel through these three key moments or acts (Field, 2005, p. 26). Initially, it could be thought that character has priority over structure, but one glance from the opposite perspective shows another reality. If there is no structure for a character to go through, there is no story (McKee, 1997, p. 102). For instance, if a full-length film showed a man sitting in a chair without anything ever happening, there is no story. With this structure, there is no beginning, middle or end. The experimental film Empire (Warhol, 1965) attempts a similar exercise. The film consists of a single uninterrupted shot of the Empire State Building for eight hours (Warhol, 1965). For experimental cinema, such narratively ambiguous projects may be possible, but in the scope of screenplay and story, it is not. Therefore, structure is character just as character is structure. The debate of character versus structure is specious since they are one and the same (McKee, 1997, p. 101).

Figure 2: Still from "Empire" (Warhol, 1965).

The reason for such confusion resides in a misunderstanding between character and characterization. Characterization is usually what first comes to mind when thinking of a fictional character. It is all the observable qualities of a character (McKee, 1997, p. 101). Examples of observable qualities are as follows: age, IQ, sex, ethnicity, manners, income, style, personality, and values. Character is the heart of a person’s humanity and is revealed “in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature” (McKee, 1997, pp. 101-102). In this situation, character refers to the true character or deep character, which is the true nature of a protagonist. Character can also be applied to secondary characters or antagonists, but it is most often the protagonist who has their true character revealed. McKee (1997) uses the example of the burning bus to show the difference between character and characterization (pp. 102-103). In the example, two cars pass by a crashed bus on fire (McKee, 1997, pp. 102-103). In the first car is a woman who is an illegal alien who works as a domestic; in the second car is a man who is a rich neurosurgeon (McKee, 1997, pp. 102-103). Which one stops to help and which one keeps going? They both have reasons to ignore the bus. The woman risks getting caught by the police since they may show up at any time to secure the bus (McKee, 1997, pp. 102-103). The neurosurgeon cannot risk burning his hands. Without them, thousands of patients will be unable to get lifesaving surgeries (McKee, 1997, pp. 102-103). These characters are complete opposites of each other and yet they may share the same deep character if they both stop –or ignore– the bus (McKee, 1997, pp. 102-103). McKee (1997) continues further with this analogy, developing these characters’ true character (pp. 101-102).

Figure 3: Character dimensions. From "Story" (McKee, p. 366).

Knowing character and characterization is not sufficient to write a good protagonist. As said by Trottier (2014), a protagonist requires depth:

Main characters will play better if they have depth. No one is totally evil or perfectly good. The bad guy loves his cat (and may even “save the cat”), while the good guy kicks his dog once in a while. (p. 83).

Adding depth makes characters more interesting in addition to being more realistic since no one is completely good or evil. Depth is often misunderstood. Character depth or dimension is usually a sign of a good character, but few people actually know what it means (McKee, 1997, p. 363). A multidimensional character does not refer to multiple characterizations. An 82-year-old video game champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist, single father, and car mechanic, is not a multidimensional character. The accumulation of characteristics is certainly intriguing, but it does not constitute a character with depth. The answer lies in contradictions: “Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guiltridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief)” (McKee, 1997, p. 364). McKee (1997) uses Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1623) as an example of a multidimensional character, guilt-ridden, and ambitious. Desiring a seat on the throne, Macbeth kills the king of Scotland and takes his place (Shakespeare, 1623). Taken by guilt, he descends into madness, committing more murders (Shakespeare, 1623). His ambition of becoming king contradicts his true character as proven by his guilt (Shakespeare, 1623). Dimension is created within true character itself like Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1623) who is both wracked by guilt and pushed by ambition, or between true character and characterization (McKee, 1997, p. 364). For example, in Squid Game (Dong-hyuk, 2021), the main character, Gi-Hun, is a lazy gambling deadbeat father who lives with his mother. Gi-Hun steals money from her and gambles it on horses (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Immediately, Gi-Hun comes off as an unlikable protagonist and perhaps an uninteresting one (Dong-hyuk, 2021). His greed leads him to enter a high-stakes game where the winning prize is 45.6 billion Korean won (Dong-hyuk, 2021). He quickly discovers that the stakes are people's lives; if he loses, he dies. Thus, he refuses to play (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Only revealing itself through high-pressure situations, true character is the nature of a protagonist. Such a high-pressure dilemma presents itself for Gi-Hun: his mother needs expensive lifesaving surgery (Dong-hyuk, 2021). From his first impression, Gi-Hun does not seem like the kind of person willing to risk his life for anyone (Dong-hyuk, 2021). He is a greedy man who used his mother and almost never sees his daughter (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Despite his overly selfish and negative characterization, Gi-Hun decides to risk his life in a series of deadly games to save his mother (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Gi-Hun’s deep character contradicts his characterization, creating a multidimensional protagonist. He is lazy, a bad father, a bad son and, a gambling addict, but in truth, he is compassionate and selfless (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Gi-Hun’s true character and characterization are explicitly at odds. Thus, an interesting character is produced. He may not be likable, but audiences find him fascinating, as 142 million households watched the show (Rushe, 2021). Coincidentally, these high-pressure situations typically occur when the hero sacrifices himself for the greater good as is the case for Iron Man (Favreau, 2021). A rich, playboy, and weapons dealer, Tony Stark, sacrifices himself to kill the villain in an arc surge explosion (Favreau, 2021). Stark’s characterization as a weapons dealer contradicts his true character of savior. He manages to survive the explosion in the end, but was fully prepared to die (Favreau, 2008).

Figure 4: Losers of the "Red Light, Green Light" game are shot. Still from "Squid Game" (Dong-hyuk, 2021).

Considering the long-lived debate of structure versus character, it is unsurprising that once they were revealed to be concomitants of each other, stories were built from them (McKee, 1997, p. 364). From the protagonist, the rest of the cast is built. Secondary characters exist only to support the main character (McKee, 1997, p. 364). Granted, they may not support in the sense that they actively help the protagonist accomplish their goal. Rather, they support the main character by bringing out all the complexities of their attributes, characterization and character. Indeed, McKee (1997) notes protagonists will act differently with various people:

[A] four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places. These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible. (p. 365).

McKee (1997) proposes four secondary characters (figure 3), but the number depends on the protagonist since they build the rest of the cast. In Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022), for example, Wednesday is an introverted goth obsessed with violence. To round her out, she is paired with Enid, her colorful and outgoing roommate (Gough & Millar, 2022). At first, Wednesday rejects Enid, but as the story advances, they become friends, exhibiting the complexity of her character (Gough & Millar, 2022). From an antisocial and uncaring characterization, Wednesday has an affectionate deep character (Gough & Millar, 2022). This is further proven by her apology to Eugene Ottinger who ended up in the hospital because of her negligence (Gough & Millar, 2022). Her characterization contradicts her deep character. This happens once again when Wednesday lies to her friends to get help for her investigation (Gough & Millar, 2022).

Figure 5: Wednesday and Enid's room. Still from "Wednesday" (Gough & Millar, 2022).

Protagonists are not the only complex characters in a story. Although the depth of secondary characters may be scaled back in favor of the protagonist, they may also exhibit contradicting character. In Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022), Enid may have all the typical characterizations of a socially skilled extrovert, but she fears the very real possibility of loneliness. Her inability to fully transform into a werewolf results in ostracization from her family and community (Gough & Millar, 2022). Furthermore, some casts will feature secondary characters whose character and characterization will complete the protagonists. In The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019), orphans under the age of 12 grow up hoping to be adopted when, in reality, they are killed and eaten by a race of demons. The protagonist is Emma, a loving 11-year-old whose character and characterization match (Kanbe, 2019). In the orphanage, she loves and cares for all children (Kanbe, 2019). When she discovers the fate that awaits them all, she vows to escape with everyone, despite the unlikelihood of such a feat (Kanbe, 2019). Even under pressure, when it seems clear that saving every child is impossible, Emma keeps her promise and risks her life anyway (Kanbe, 2019). The story still works well because she is accompanied by two characters, Norman and Ray, both 11 years old. The story is told from Emma’s perspective, but Norman and Ray are also the main characters (Kanbe, 2019). Both of them have different values, characterization, and character, causing conflict within their group. Norman is the smartest of the three and is secretly in love with Emma (Kanbe, 2019). He wants to achieve Emma’s ambition of escaping with everyone and, despite knowing it is nearly impossible, helps her (Kanbe, 2019). Ray, on the other hand, is a realist and a pessimist (Kanbe, 2019). Almost as smart as Norman, Ray acts in self-preservation and refuses to escape the orphanage with all the children, as such a plan will put his own survival in jeopardy (Kanbe, 2019). Each character has their own characterization and character that conflicts with another. Ray, for instance, ends up agreeing to save all the children after Norman is harvested by the demons (Kanbe, 2019). Ray faced a dilemma where he was to be shipped out and eaten a few weeks after Norman (Kanbe, 2019). Ray came up with a plan to save everyone, involving his own sacrifice (Kanbe, 2019). His characterization showed him as focusing on self-preservation, yet in a high-pressure situation, he opts for death in order to save everyone else (Kanbe, 2019). He claims to still disagree with the idea of escaping with all the children, but it is better that all or some of them make it out alive, even if it means his death (Kanbe, 2019). Characters may act a certain way, such as how their characterization dictates, but their nature is different: “Action reveals character, and crisis reveals a person’s true colors, because he does what he does because of who he is. Problems and obstacles reveal what he’s made of” (Trottier, 2014, p. 73). Gi-Hun’s characterization in Squid Game (2021) is selfish, but his true character is selfless. Emma’s characterization is loving and selfless, which is only further confirmed by her actions under pressure (Kanbe, 2019). Emma acts selfless and is selfless, while Gi-Hun acts selfish but is selfless (Kanbe, 2019; Dong-hyuk, 2021). Normally, Emma’s flat character would be uninteresting, but her two fellow protagonists offset that (Kanbe, 2019).

Figure 6: Drenched in oil, Ray is about to set himself on fire. From “The Promised Neverland” (Kanbe, 2019).

In conclusion, an interesting protagonist is built with key ingredients. These ingredients are characterization, true character, conflicting values within character and characterization, and a supporting cast that brings out the complexities of the protagonist (McKee, 1997). Naturally, some exceptions may occur like in The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019) where three protagonists have similar goals but are at odds with each other. For single-protagonist stories, characterization and character must contradict each other to create a multidimensional character like Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022). It is also possible to build contradiction from within deep character alone, as is the case with Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1923) who is ambitious and guilt-ridden by the consequences of such ambition. Snyder's (2005) and Chamberlain’s (2016) structures contribute to building a good protagonist by opposing flaws to strengths and contradicting values. While neither of them specifically mentioned character creation, their conception of the structure further proves that character and structure are counterparts.

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Aristotle. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published c. 335 BC)

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Dong-hyuk, H. (Creator). (2021). Squid Game. Siren Pictures Inc.

Favreau, J. (Director). (2008). Iron Man. Marvel.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Gough, A. & Millar, M. (Creators). (2022). Wednesday. MGM Television.

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

Kanbe, M. (Director). (2019). The Promised Neverland. CloverWorks.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Harper Collins.

Rushe, D. (2021, October 19). 142m households watched Squid Game, Netflix says as it adds 4.4m subscribers. The Guardian.

Shakespeare, W. (1623). Macbeth. Edward Blount and William Jaggard.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Warhol, A. (Director). (1965). Empire. Andy Warhol.

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Yoran Praet

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