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Transformational Character Arcs: Part 6 - Building Your Character

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

Bulding Your Character

So we’ve gone through all the personality types. My overall reason for listing them all was to simply give you a starting point for designing and creating a character. There are NO RULES that say your character(s) MUST fall into any particular one of these personality types but at least if you know the traits of a particular personality type, you’ll have a strong foundation to begin the design of your characters.

I would assume most of us create a character seemingly out of thin air. meaning that there may be no rhyme or reason to how you came up with that character... YOU JUST DID. Cool. I think most of us do that and I happen to think that’s a good thing. I also happen to be of the opinion that characters are the MOST IMPORTANT PART of your story.

Without them, you have nothing but a plot.

A plot without characters... Without REAL CHARACTERS... WITHOUT HYPER-REAL CHARACTERS is just a plot and rarely will “just a plot” make a great movie. Audience members simply do not want to jump on the PLOT TRAIN. No, they bought their tickets to jump on the CHARACTER TRAIN.

And you’re the conductor...

Another reason you want to design a HYPER-REAL character or characters for your story is because let’s face facts, your script not only has to sell a studio or prodco, the characters within your screenplay have to sell the actor(s) that read it. I’ve seen quite a few scripts languish in development hell NOT because of the plot but because of the characters i.e., nobody wanted to play them.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a few scripts that had great characters where A-List actors were sitting on the sidelines waiting for rewrites i.e., the plot wasn’t nearly as good as the characters. Of course at the very minimum, you want to at least strike a nice balance between character and plot but you can’t go wrong leaning more toward character.

So you’ve got this IDEA about a character. You’ve probably even thought about him or her for awhile now. They are starting to take shape. They have form... Purpose. Now what?

Character Bio Anyone?

Answer the questions. Yeah, it’s hard work. Nobody ever said it wasn’t hard work and just in case you’ve never seen or heard anyone say it, let me take care of that RIGHT NOW: CHARACTER BIOS ARE HARD WORK!

Can you hear me now? Good! You certainly do not have to live and die by the character bio. And, as I’ve said before, you really only have to go so far on the bio so that the character you’re designing starts talking to you. For some, that might be almost immediately, for others, it might take pages of bio along with pages of history. There are no rules and most likely, there is no one way that will work for everyone.

Remember, your bio doesn’t or SHOULDN’T have to be SET IN STONE. Rather, as you get to know your character, you can go back to his or her bio and tweak it. This is where the personality types come in. It’s actually nice to know what kind of character type you’re working with. You might not know that right off but as you get to know your character(s), this should start becoming clear to you.

Then, knowing the personality type of your character is going to make the majority of their actions within the context of your plot that much easier.

STOP!

Does that mean your character has to be cliché? Does that mean your character has to be predictable? Do I really have to answer that? Not only NO but HELL NO! However, knowing the character traits of your character and his or her ultimate personality type should help you make that character HYPER-REAL.

Dimensionality is one of the keys to designing a hyper-real character. Characters with dimensionality is hyper-reality at its best. Knowing your character’s overall personality type should help you extend his or her dimensionality. In fact, you can combine character traits within the personality types into your character(s) because some are so closely related. Just don’t overdo it.

Knowing your character’s character traits and then BUILDING those traits into your character(s) through action, reaction, and dialogue should help you create a multi-dimensional character.

Where to Start?

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created - nothing.”-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m posting this quote simply to clarify that the Personality Types are something you figure out after you’ve been creating your characters. Come up with your character... Begin by breathing LIFE into that character.

Everyone does this differently. In fact, some of do it differently for each character. Some start by giving their character a name right off the bat. Others start by placing that character inside your idea for a story. Do whatever works for you but DO IT.

“What do I come up with first, character or plot?”

Does it matter? Just come up with one and then the other. Whatever you come up with first means that you’ve eventually got to come up with the other or you won’t have anything anyway. Character is plot — Plot is character.

Meaning... your plot should be planned, designed, and created around not only what your Protagonist wants but also around whatever obstacle you drop in front of him or her. Drop that obstacle smack dab in the middle of your Protagonist’s want and the result is CONFLICT. Conflict should bring about some kind of emotional turmoil within your Protagonist. This emotional turmoil should in turn bring about some kind of ACTION from your Protagonist. Action can be solid action, reaction, or dialogue.

ACTION DRIVES YOUR PLOT i.e., your character(s) want or desire something. Your character(s) act toward that want or desire. You throw an obstacle at them and the result is conflict.

But before you go ahead and simply plot some basic action by your Protagonist to thwart that obstacle, STOP and give your Protagonist’s response some real thought... Why? Because you want your audience to jump on the Protagonist train and ride all the way to the end of the line, right? If you’re not saying RIGHT, then I’ll say it for you...RIGHT!

This is perhaps one of the places where so many screenwriters get it wrong. This is perhaps where so many MOVIES get it wrong. This is perhaps one of the key elements that will start the TRANSFORMATIONAL CHARACTER ARC BALL rolling...

How your Protagonist RESPONDS to each and every obstacle (conflict) that you throw at them reveals something about their character and if you keep revealing something new or at least something a little different than what you revealed with each obstacle/conflict PRIOR, your audience will not only board the Protagonist train but they’ll quickly find a seat and start looking out the windows all the way to the end.

In other words, it’s your character(s) response to conflict that creates empathy within your audience or audience identification. The MORE your audience identifies with your characters and especially with your PROTAGONIST, the better chance you have of writing a screenplay that succeeds.

It’s your Protagonist’s emotional reaction to action that is the seed of the transformational character arc. Each emotional reaction to action causes this seed to germinate, sink in roots, and grow... Grow into a new BEING. The emotional reaction to action within the transformational character arc is a never-ending cycle in its own right...

There are five stages to the cycle or the 5 As:

  1. Awareness: Your character’s consciousness that change or reinvention of oneself is necessary to respond to the conflict.
  2. Acceptance: Your character’s emotional ability to let go of the old and move on to the new.
  3. Approach: Your character’s creative exploration of strategic decisions; leading to and ending with their ultimate decision to act one way or another.
  4. Assemble: Planning and implementation of plan required to carry out their ultimate decision to act one way or another.
  5. Action: Acting one way or another in response to conflict.
As your characters move through the cycle, they create some kind of change within themselves. Some aspect of their personality and or character traits have to literally die... Kind of like a snake shedding its skin and leaving it behind. The result is something new needs to be "born."

Please do NOT get all caught up in this theory. It’s simply a theory of mine and one that I use to write my screenplays. It’s simply the breaking down of a character’s emotional reaction to action — the decision to act in response to conflict. Each time your character goes through this cycle, we should be learning something new about them — good or bad.

Sometimes breaking down story elements like this can cause one to worry about every emotional reaction to action that their characters already have... i.e., what you’ve already written... Don’t worry. Chances are that you’re already doing it. Chances are that your characters are going through this cycle as they respond to conflict. Yeah, the cycle above can take up as little as a couple of lines of dialogue all the way out to several pages of a scene so DON’T WORRY.

With each successive decision to ACT, your Protagonist needs to go DEEPER... Revealing just a little more about themselves with each new emotional reaction to action. These are the “peeling back of the layers” that we so often hear about. And while the above cycle can result in any kind of emotional reaction to action on the part of your characters, it can and often should be challenging and painful for your Protagonist.

The deeper the change, the more layers peeled back. The more that your Protagonist lets go. The more profound and deeply embedded is your Protagonist’s resistance.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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