Four Questions For Any Character Piece

Sometimes you have a character in mind. No situation, no world. You don't even know what the character will do, let alone what they want. It's just the character. What exactly do you do with them?

Four Questions For Any Character Piece
John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

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An idea can come from anywhere.

Sometimes you have a character in mind. No situation, no world. You don't even know what the character will do, let alone what they want.

It's just the character.

What exactly do you do with them?

Chances are, unless this character lends itself to action or a specific genre, this will be a smaller movie.

And smaller or not, you're still going to have to find a story. You're still going to need a narrative.

Here are four questions worth asking about any character, but are perhaps even more crucial for the character piece.

They're not meant to be a magic bullet. They're meant to help you make decisions by keeping what's important in front of you.

1) What RESONATES WITH YOU about this character?

Figure out what interest you about this character. Identify it clearly. Write it in a sentence. Don't be wishy-washy about it. Be 100% intentional.

Some examples:

  • CHARACTER A: This guy is so young and already trapped inside the small world of his city block. He has closed himself off to so many other options and doesn't even know it.
  • CHARACTER B: Curmudgeons get to say what we all want to say sometimes, which is fun. But deep down, he is unhappy, and I really want to see someone like this care about others for unselfish reasons.
  • CHARACTER C: I am brokenhearted for this character. His situation terrifies me, and I want to see him move on, even though I don't know how he could.

It doesn't matter so much what it is, as long as it's specific. This is something you are going to want to explore and not veer too far away from.

If this aspect of the character resonates with you, you have to trust it will resonate with others.

2) What is UNIQUE about this character? Why or how are they different than other people?

Some characters are indeed the so-called everyman. They are an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. But a situation wasn't the starting point here, a character was. (We get into all the possible starting points in The Idea To Outline course.)

If this character inspires you enough to want to write a screenplay around them, there is something unique about them. Identify it. Call it out. This is usually obvious as it is the first thing you consider about them.

  • CHARACTER A: Dude can dance. He has a creative side that he doesn't recognize as such.
  • CHARACTER B: He has OCD, and his anxiety has created coping mechanisms to keep him from the world.
  • CHARACTER C: He is emotionally broken and wants nothing to do with the world.

We call this out and identify it because we don't want it to become incidental. It should remain relevant in the film.

3) The next question is the opposite. What is UNIVERSAL about this character?

How do we all see ourselves in this person? How do we relate to them?

Sometimes we can share this early. We can also save it as a reveal to help things make sense later on. Either way, it's important that the audience recognizes or at least empathizes with something in the character.

  • CHARACTER A: He's 18 and lives at home with his parents, where he feels the weakest. He works hard and not for a lot of money.
  • CHARACTER B: He is lonely and doesn't know it.
  • CHARACTER C: He had a family. He was once just a normal, unexceptional guy. What happened to him is perhaps our biggest fear.

This is easier with some characters than others. Sometimes we have to make this decision and reveal it later to the audience. But we will often need it, and it's difficult for the audience

4) The next question is, what world? What environment, what situation is going to transform this person?

This is going to be the most important one for finding your narrative. Stories are about transformation, or the lack of it in a certain type of tragedy.

This situation pushes the character out of their protective world and often breaks them, forcing them to change. In the case of the aforementioned tragedy, it gives them the opportunity to change, and they refuse it.

Feel free to brainstorm this answer. Write down 10 ideas and look for the one most dramatically interesting.

What is their comfort zone? And what would force them out of it?

This answer is the start of finding your story.

  • CHARACTER A: He meets someone entirely unimpressed with him., sees others that were supposed to have achieved success be miserable, and he gets what he always wanted but realizes he didn't earn it.
  • CHARACTER B: He is pressured to go on a road trip with people, and experience more emotional intimacy and vulnerability than he has in likely decades.
  • CHARACTER C: He is forced to care for a relative when he would rather not care about anyone.

Don't lose track of your answers.

It is VERY easy to get lost in the weeds, especially in the outline phase, but these answers will guide you. Let them show you what to lean into and what to explore.

You might find that the character doesn't thrill you enough to spend months with them, or perhaps they're just a supporting character in someone else's story.

But that is the point of the exercise. Better to figure this out now.

Strictly character stories are tough. This is why it helps so much to give them a plot-focused dramatic question. But they are so, so worth it when you can get them to hit.

Incidentally, the characters mentioned above.

  • CHARACTER A: Tony from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Changes for the better.
  • CHARACTER B: Melvin from AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Changes for the better.
  • CHARACTER C: Lee from MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. He has the opportunity to change but is unable to do so.

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