How to Build a Film Character from Scratch

I think the best-kept secret in Hollywood is that pretty much every decent movie you've ever watched is a morality play. Not in the technical sense (because that's boring and medieval), but in the sense that they present you with a character or characters who are faced with a series of conflicts and choices that, through their resolution, argue for a certain moral perspective. The better the film-making, the more you will identify with the character(s) as they make these choices, and consequently the more you will track with them as they arrive at their eventual conclusions regarding the primary theme of the film.

The good screenwriter must keep a number of plates spinning, but it seems to me that the most important one (after, perhaps, the overall structure of ever-increasing conflict, climax, and resolution) is the creation of characters with whom we can identify. This is much, much harder than it seems. A script is a delicate piece of poetic machinery. As with a machine, a great many moving parts must work in perfect harmony or the whole thing will come to a crashing, hissing halt. And as with poetry, it is endlessly easy to at any moment say one word or one syllable too much, and entirely kill the spirit of the thing. 

When it comes to characters, the first and best way to destroy your script is to fail to love them. You cannot treat your characters as objects or slaves. You must love them, heart and soul... yes, even the bad guys. There is very little that is less pleasurable than spending an hour and forty-five minutes listening to someone tell you how much they hate somebody else.

So, how do you fall in love with a character? The same way you fall in love with anything or anybody - you spend time with them. You get to know them. You listen to them speak, with a desire to know, and to understand. If the way you look is real - if it is honest, and true - then these characters will begin to come alive in your love. Practically speaking, the best way to fall in love with your characters is to start writing about them. This is called "creating a back story," and a lot of better, more experienced writers than I have explored this process in great detail.

What I will do here, then, is describe the three, ascending levels of reality that can be built into a character within the context of the overall morality play of the script, once he or she has already begun to take shape. This is because the truth about a character is only ever revealed as it plays out in a story (sort of like, say, real life).

The first and simplest level of on-the-day character-building is to discover what a character wants. For example, you could have a male character who wants to sleep with a girl. He wants something, so he is interesting. If you do not understand your character at the level of his wants, your story is over right there.These desires will drive the choices your character makes, which will set the stage for the next conflict. So ask yourself: given what I know about my character, what would he be most likely to want in this situation?

The second level of character-building is to figure out what a character really needs within the story. Your male character may want to sleep with the girl, but why? Is it just because of some inbuilt biological necessity to procreate, a need augmented by primal, lizard-brain memories of the dopamine spikes of past sexual release? Or is there perhaps more... could he be wanting to sleep with the girl because  he feels lonely, and yearns for a more profound and meaningful human connection than he finds in his everyday life? The deeper and further you explore these questions, the more interesting your story is likely to become.

I've done a little thespiatic training, and I can tell you that since Stanslavski, most of what writers and actors try to do is to live in the realm of primal needs as they relate to character motivation. Yet I am going to take the incredibly presumptuous step of adding to this another level of character development; the level of ambiguity. This is an intangible aspect - the hardest to define, and by far the hardest to write. At this level, you recognize that within the character's desire to sleep with the girl there exist simultaneously two very antithetical things. First, there is a narcissistic desire for self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizement. And second, there is a desire to please and love the other person.

It is my belief that all human choices and all human action - all of them - are motivated simultaneously by the two most primal driving forces: Love, and Fear.

He wants to sleep with the girl because he wants love. Love is his soul's highest intent, it's greatest yearning. But he also realizes that in love are found vulnerability, self-diminishment, and loss of control. What this realization does, therefore, is it confronts him with his greatest fear: the fact that he is not in control of his life and will someday die. In short, the promise of sexual love forces him to face his own mortality.

I firmly believe that every truly great film character is written with an eye for the tension between these two things: Love, and Fear. I believe that if we can write characters in a way that expresses an understanding of this tension, we will have seen into the depths of what it means to be human. We will have expressed, in building such characters, that we have looked deeply into ourselves and into our characters and have loved well.

In a sense, it doesn't even matter all that much, at that point, if our characters choose the path of fear, or of love, because the way in which they make those choices will be true, and audiences will follow them on their moral journey. They, too, will love our characters as we have loved them, and our stories will be successful.

The choices our characters make will reveal the way in which we as writers view the world, and I would hope that we would want to give viewers a picture of the world in which love, hope and grace win the day. But think for a moment about film not as some exalted, transcendent art form, but rather as one facet of the larger Story, and of storytelling in general. Think of a grandfather telling his grandson about the time he picked up a skunk by the tail because his grandfather had told him an elevated skunk couldn't spray, and how his arm started to tire and he had to run down and throw it into the pond. Think about a story in that way - as perhaps the truest and most memorable way of communicating who we are to others - and you will realize that a well-built, well-loved character in a well-crafted story structure is all you can really hope for.

And it is enough.


  1. i would wholeheartedly agree with you from an actors perspective, love and fear is the simplest way of tackling the foundation of a character. i would also add that a character must find and form a very strong opinion about everything.

  2. Nice, I'll keep that in mind. The one friend I have who's (sort of) a professional actor is also one of the most opinionated people I know. Which is to say... it fits.


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