What the heck does your character want?

Simply stated, want produces action.  Think about it…If you suddenly developed a toothache, what would you inevitably end up doing?  You’d call your dentist.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself when your creating a main character.  What is the inciting incident established for the main character?  You know…something that must be gotten or achieved.  Something that the character believes will ultimately make his or her life better.

Here are some examples of (obvious) external goals: money, love, career promotion, the love of a child or family member, etc.

Whatever this goal is, your protagonist must feel that this goal is essential to his or her life, and the audience must see that the character will suffer or loose out “if” he or she does not achieve this goal.  This connection is paramount between the main character and the audience.  If it’s not there, you might lose your audience along the way.  The character won’t be compelling and the audience won’t want to root for him or her.

Milton’s worried about his red stapler…but that’s just the beginning.

–just a little writing tip, in case you’re in the midst!

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What’s up with universal appeal?

So, you want to write a screenplay that has universal appeal (don’t we all)?

There are a couple of major things you need to focus on for that to happen:  Your plot and the reason for action.
According to Aristotle, “The life and soul of all drama (tragedy) is the plot,”  and action is related to the want and need/goal of your main character.  In other words, let’s say your protagonist desires or needs love.  His or her need is going to drive him or her to respond or act according to the need.  Micheal Tierno, in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters says, “When a strong desire of a hero relates to all of the action, then the plot can depict a simple ‘portrait’ of the hero.”

So, often times, action is a emotional response of the character’s need or want.  For example:  Remember the movie Cocktail (1988), which starred Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue?  Let’s look at the storyline.  Brian Flanagan has just gotten out of the service and wants to make money.  He wants his own business, but after being turned down in several job interviews for lack of education, he takes a job working as a bartender.  His need for money pushes him to take a job that he’s really not excited about.  However, his need produces continued actions (chains of events), to include traveling to Jamaica to work as a bartender at an upscale resort, and meeting Jordan Mooney, the seeming love of his life. His boss, Doug Coughlin also wants to own his own high-end bar, so the two come up with a game-plan.  Once again, this flawed protagonist has an agenda, and his need gives rise to action, pushes the plot forward and will eventually guide the story to resolution.

(Tom Cruise- Brian Flanagan in Cocktail, 1988)

Universal appeal is important because for an audience to relate to a character or story there must be a relationship with the character and the storyline.  So, when Brian Flanagan’s business partner (the antagonist) puts him to a dare, we (the audience) feel bad for him, because it seems like all is lost.  We’ve all been there.  Desire and need are powerful things.  We somehow relate to his plight, his frustration, his turmoil, and that is universally appealing.

Is universal appeal important?  You betcha!  Life is a journey, and we are all a part of it.  For an audience or reader to relate to a character, there must be character traits, familiar moments that we’ve walked through or witnessed.  We know how this character feels because we’ve been there and done that!

According to Aristotle, “A plot must include causes of the action that can arouse the audience’s deepest pity and fear [or laughter and tears]. This means the audience must understand the hero’s thoughts and see those thoughts becoming actions, which in turn reveal a moral quality (character) of the hero.”

Reference:  Aristotle’s Poetics by Michael Tierno

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Your subject is an ACTION not a person…

Aristotle believed that a dramatic story must have unity if it’s going to move an audience to catharsis.  Do you agree or disagree?  Here’s a great quote by Michael Tierno in his book, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters:  “The Unity of Plot does not consist, as some suppose in its having one man as its subject.”

What?

(continued…)

“An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action.”

So, what does this mean for those who are writing a screenplay?  It’s important to remember that SUBJECT is an ACTION, not a person.

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