I wrote this character creation guide with questions for the blog of the screenwriting software company Arc Studio. Below you’ll find the outline and excerpts from the full guide.
Your main character is essential to your story and a great element with which to start work on your screenplay. They should be awesome in the sense that they compel interest and draw the audience in to root for them. To be an intriguing character, your hero should exist between everyman and ubermensch. If they’re too generic, no one will care, but a superhero with infinite powers is likewise boring because they’re equally predictable. The following steps are designed to give your hero the right qualities for true awesomeness.
In just five steps, you can create the hero for your screenplay. It’s simple: in each step, you’ll answer a couple of guiding questions after a preceding explanation to unlock a different aspect of your protagonist.
Step 1: Equip And Calibrate Your Hero
Make your hero unusual to raise them above average, but not so extraordinary to give them omnipotence. Examples of interesting qualities are: great skills or abilities, conflict or contrast, imperfections, relationships or connections, a powerful or defining past, decisiveness and proactivity, and a manner that is sympathetic, clever, or witty.
Give your hero varying degrees of proactivity, likeability, and competence and you’ll automatically introduce a level of complexity to your character. The more proactive your main character is, the less you depend on external events and circumstances to drive the story forward. You can force an otherwise lethargic character into action by giving them dreams, secrets, longing, instability, a discovery, disaster, a sleight of hand or twist of fate that compels them to react.
Calibrate how likable your hero is either through actions the audience can relate to, or by giving them a skill – everyone is good at something, even if it doesn’t connect to the plot. Competence is something you can play with when your hero leaves their familiar surroundings and has to adapt and learn to apply their skills in new ways.
To make your hero human and put them on their path at the same time, think of their flaws and how they might stand in the way of what the character wants. And what DO they want? Give them a goal, but also a lesson or theme they might have to learn about which they don’t have a clue yet!
WALL-E is a robot, but despite the fact that he hardly speaks, his awkwardness, love of show tunes and his care for the planet and his animal companion instantly endear him to the audience. He’s proactive, inventive and seemingly more human than the humans in the movie with his ready display of emotions. He wants to be with EVA, and has to find out that the way to do so is to lead mankind back to earth.
- On a scale of 1-10, how does your hero rate for proactivity, likeability, competence?
- What is the one thing your hero is good at?
- What is your hero’s flaw?
- Does your hero have a problem or a goal?
- What motivates your hero?
- What do they do about it, and what difficulties do they face?
- What is at stake for the hero?
- Which three major forces are driving your hero?
- What is a life lesson or theme your hero might have to learn?
Achievement unlocked: You’ve given birth to your hero as a fairly complex and human character with a range of traits that will send them on their journey!
Step 2: Surround Your Hero
- What is the story of your hero’s mentor?
- What is the story of your hero’s love interest?
- What is the story of your hero’s best friend?
- What is the story of your hero mother, father, sibling, family member?
- What is the story of your hero’s helper or accomplice?
- What is the story of your hero’s (animal) companion?
- What is the story of your hero’s boss or subordinate?
- What is the story of your hero’s enemy?
Achievement unlocked: You’ve populated your script with well-rounded secondary characters and tested how worthy the story of your hero is!
Step 3: Chronicle Your Hero
- Where was the hero born or where did they grow up?
- Which important events shaped the hero’s past or development?
- Who is part of the hero’s family, and how close are they?
- What are the details of the hero’s education, occupation, finances, health?
- Are there any past failures, dark secrets, or traumas?
- What are they doing with their life?
- Whom does the hero admire?
- Who is most important to the hero?
- Do they have a personal habit or object?
- How do the above answers affect the story or other characters in it?
Achievement unlocked: You should now have a detailed picture of your hero’s background and past!
Step 4: Present Your Hero
- When and where does the hero make their first appearance?
- What is their first action?
- What is their first line?
- When, where and how does the hero first interact with a secondary character?
- If there is a direct antagonist, how will you first contrast them and the hero?
- How can you introduce your hero visually (show, don’t tell)?
- How can you display your hero’s flaws?
- Does your hero come across as likable in their first appearance?
- Can you establish your hero’s goal?
Achievement unlocked: You’ve set up your hero for a strong and impressive first appearance and also laid the foundation for important scenes in your first act.
Step 5: Progress Your Hero
- What rule guides your hero’s behavior?
- What rule guides the behavior of your secondary characters?
- Which parts of the hero’s past affect their current actions?
- Which of the hero’s relationships are most important with frequent interaction?
- What obligations does your hero have (social, religious, personal etc.)?
- What motivates the hero at all times?
- Which of your hero’s sensibilities evoke or provoke strong reactions, likes, and dislikes?
Achievement unlocked: You’ve established how your hero will behave in any situation and you ensure that their progress through the story reveals aspects of their character.
Bonus Step: Oppose Your Hero
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
As great as this line from The Dark Knight is, the screenwriting trap to avoid is an antagonist who exists solely to get in the way of your hero. The more evilness or badness you put into a villain, the more likely you are to rationalize them and their actions exclusively that way: “That’s just who they are, they’re evil.” But even Darth Vader started out as Anakin Skywalker.
In the classic clash of a hero and a nemesis, the bad guy can start out more powerful, but their might hides the fact that unlike the hero, they’re not special. The hero’s journey is to find out what makes them unique and to overcome their handicap (or even curse). This setup also works without a direct villain; the antagonist or opposing force can be life circumstances, the hero’s flaws, society, and its rules, nature or natural forces, or a race against time.
- Who or what is opposing your hero?
- Is your villain less likable than your hero?
- Does your hero have a redeeming quality?
- Do you have a good reason why your villain is the bad guy? Can you point to an event in your villain’s past where things went awry?
- If viewers sympathize with your villain, can they sympathize more with your hero?
- What is the story of your villain – do they believe they are the hero?
- What is the relationship between the hero and villain?
- Who or what does the villain love or care about?
- What skills and powers does the villain have?
- What weaknesses and blind spots does the villain have?
Achievement unlocked: You’ve created a villain who is more human and complex than a cliché bad guy and you’ve laid the groundwork for the confrontation between hero and villain.
This is an excerpt from a guide I wrote for the blog of the software Arc Studio.