Screenwriting

Writing characters

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Here's what we'll go through in this lesson:

  1. Protagonists
  2. Goals and obstacles
  3. Character arcs

Protagonists

Before you write your script, flesh out your character by delving into their personality, their history, their likes, and their fears.

Download and fill out the protagonist activity below for your protagonist. If you have more characters, you can do this exercise for them too.

Goals and obstacles

For your story to be exciting your characters need to have clear goals. This is something the character wants. Goals can be really simple, for example, Libby wants to get her biscuit back from the dog. Or they can be really big, for example, Libby wants to save the world. In the example of The Time Machine the problem Alex faces is the possibility she'll be stuck back in time. Her big goal is to get back to her own time. 

Activity

Invent two characters for your script. A protagonist (if you haven't already) and an antagonist.

The protagonist is usually the hero of the story. We want them to succeed. The antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist and tries to prevent them from reaching their goal. They are often the evil character, but you should make your antagonist interesting and complex too, so think about their traits and what motivates them. 

Watch: check out this video essay called Writing the perfect villain to see how you can make your antagonist just as interesting as your protagonist.

Download and complete the protagonist and antagonist activity. Once it's completed, use it as the basis for a paragraph describing each character.

Even if you don't have an antagonist for your story, you should still have an antagonistic force. This means something non-human is working against your character. It could be coming from society, the physical world, or within the protagonist themselves. Find out more via the antagonistic forces link below. 

Antagonistic forces

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Activity

Interesting characters are often enhanced or made more interesting because of the story they are in. Likewise good stories are even better when they contain interesting characters. The two work hand-in-hand.

Let’s see how well you know your protagonist by writing scenes around the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: Your character has to leave their school or workplace in a hurry, but they can’t tell their teacher/boss why they need to go.

Scenario 2: Your character wakes up to find council workers about to cut down the magnificent tree outside your character’s home.

Scenario 3: Your character is at a train station when they notice a man drop his wallet without realising, just as he is boarding a train.

Scenario 4: Your character is on a spaceship heading towards the new human colony on Mars.

Create some scenarios for others to put their characters in. Try re-writing the favourite scene you wrote but this time include your antagonist, or your antagonistic force.

Character arcs

Just as the plot has a beginning, middle and end, so does a protagonist's story. This is called a character arc. This just means that your character will grow and change from their experience, and the lessons they learn along the way. If a character doesn't change or learn anything then it won't be a very interesting story.

A character arc works on the same timeline as your plot, as the plot always works alongside and with the character.

Activity

Using your character info, add your character arc into the story and character arc worksheet below. This character arc will go alongside the plot you have already mapped out.

Make sure you explain what the 'character question' is. Your protagonist will have a goal or a problem to overcome, but character questions go a little deeper than plot, and will often relate to the script's theme. Try and make the character question, and the character arc about what your protagonist learns, how they grow, how they change. In The Time Machine, the plot question is about whether or not Alex will get back home, but her character question is more like "will Alex accept the changes in her life and move forward?"

On the diagram there will be a space for you to fill in the character's goals alongside the plot.

Now, write a short scene between your protagonist and antagonist, remembering the antagonist is in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.

Want to learn more about story, script and characters before you start writing your script? There is lots more you can learn and practice in the art of screenwriting. Searching the blog of American screenwriter John August is a good place to look for specific tips regarding screenwriting. The Kahn Academy also have great content created with Pixar about storytelling. Otherwise, keep reading scripts and keep writing them.

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