How To Make An Audience Care About Your Characters

by Melody Jackson, Ph.D.

The first book I read on screenwriting was the seminal work of Syd Field titled Screenplay. Syd was the first person to break a screenplay/movie down into the three-act structure, and it was a great place to begin really learning about the craft of screenwriting. By understanding the basic 3-act blueprint, as well as basic character development, plot, and theme ideas, his book got me off to a pretty good start.  I still highly recommend studying Screenplay and ingraining it into your psyche as part of your screenwriting education and training.

1473621574_maxresdefault.jpgHowever, once I got the basics down and got deeper into the craft of screenwriting, I realized that the second act was a huge challenge — this is where so many screenplays drag and fail.

Since I personally am someone who likes to really grasp the top-down structure of things before getting in the weeds — which probably comes from my computer program design background — I wanted more insight into the theory of the second act. In other words, I didn’t want to just throw things into the second act to fill it up with stuff, I wanted to really understand what made it work.

At the time I didn’t really know where to look. But one day while sitting in a comedy improv class, one of my pals who’s now a successful writer-producer-director told me about Truby’s class and method. I took the class and found my answers! Truby teaches 22 steps for structuring a screenplay, and his teachings were especially valuable to me in fleshing out the second act.

Later, when I got my Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, I made a connection between Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Truby’s 22-steps, however, Truby goes even deeper and relates it specifically to screenwriting and mapping it out of the countless movies he studied.

To give you a screenwriting snack for today, here’s one of his short videos on “How To Make An Audience Care About Your Characters.”

Screenwriting teacher John Truby believes that focusing on details and character traits can lead to superficial characters. He says liking a character comes down to two things, the fundamental weakness of the character and the character’s goal in the story. He goes on to say that if you can create a goal for your hero which forces this person to deal with their deep weakness you have the makings for a great story.

I definitely agree with what he says. I think of it like this:

The most critical thing to launch your story is to give your hero a goal … and to make that goal be something that will force the hero to come face-to -face with their weakness, their vulnerability, their fear, their problem — whatever that thing is in life that’s holding them back.

When I do a script review for my clients, I always ask two questions to help get this clear:

  • What does your main character want in life that they are having trouble getting?

Your character should actually want two things.  There should be something they want on the surface, an external goal, and there should also be something their soul really wants. an internal goal.

For example, maybe externally your lead wants a promotion to prove themselves to a judgmental parent — even though they’re adults. But on the inside, what they really want is to be accepted for who they are. Maybe she would like to leave the corporate world behind and follow her heart to become an organic farmer but she doesn’t do it because she fears her father will disapprove of it.  So she now has an external goal (the promotion) and the real internal desire (to be an organic farmer).  Sometimes, the lead character is not aware of their deeper need at first, but as the writer and creator of that character, you should still know what it is as it will need to come out later.

Having both of these wants (internal and external) brings depth and dimension to the character and, very importantly, sets up the plot. If you know your character wants to leave the corporate world behind, you know they have to be working in the corporate world at the beginning to be able to leave it, and so forth. In this way, the setup of these things will give you specifics for your plot — including some things that will need to happen in the second act! im18-mj-small

The second question:

  • What lesson does your main character need to learn to be able to get what they want?

Using my example above, your character might need to learn that she must accept herself before anyone else can. Maybe she has always felt guilty for thinking the corporate success of her high-profile sibling is meaningless, and maybe she feels bad about herself for wanting a different way of life. Since she doesn’t yet accept herself yet, she stays in the job that goes against her grain and makes her miserable.

But then through the story, various things happen and eventually lead up to her finding out that her father had actually wanted to leave his corporate career behind and sail around the world and that now he regrets not doing so. At that point, she realizes that her father, whom she thought was judgmental, actually would have wholly supported her following her heart’s desire in a way that he did not do for himself. We see that it was she who had to learn to accept herself first before anyone else could. And even if her father didn’t accept it, she would still have been happier.

Melody Jackson, Ph.D.

So there you have it. You give your character a goal, a want, a desire, and then something they need to learn or overcome – a weakness, vulnerability, misguided idea —  to be able to get it. By having these as part of your setup, it helps many things including making your character more relatable and likeable.

I hope you have found this crafting tidbit to be delicious and useful.
If you would like a script analysis and review to see where you are in the development of your script, I offer both written and verbal feedback script analysis. In my own reviews, I draw from my knowledge of mythologies around the world and throughout the ages and am informed by the teachings of such greats as John Truby, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Aristotle’s Poetics, Syd Field, Linda Seger, Robert McKee and Chris Vogler. Being informed by many different teachings of these experts, I have taken what I believe to be the best tools from each and formed my own approach.

Have a great day, and be sure to write something each day, even if it’s just writing an interesting piece of dialogue you might use in the future!