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Building Characters Who Change – Part I

“You get rewarded in public for what you practice intensely in private.”

“People’s lives are a direct reflection of their peer group.”

“The past is not the future unless you live there.”

– Tony Robbins, best-selling author and inspirational speaker

One of the things I love about “Silver Linings Playbook” is the characters.  They are original, funny, and they change.

There are lots of ways of looking at character.  Some writers’ programs have you write 30 random traits for your character.  Other books suggest that you look at myths to find your characters core.  Some of my other favorites include looking at chakras to discover the essence of the personalities you are creating.
We like using a little thing we call a Character Matrix.

A Character Matrix is a chart and it’s much more geek-centric than most of our tools.  It’s a chart-master’s delight that speaks to the heart of anyone who enjoys categorizing and organizing more than they like writing.
Before we get to the geekery of organizing our matrix, let’s go over the components that make up the essence of good characters.

1.  Characters are most defined by their role in your movie.  Everyone has a role that they play, much like the people in your life.  I got a Christmas card recently from my friend who used to be a barhopping hottie.  Now, she’s a mom.  The entire card was covered with pictures of her kids.  She was relegated to a corner, wearing sunglasses and hiding her extra twenty pounds she swears is coming off this year.  Such a mom.  That’s the dominant role she plays in life at the moment.  Later on, she may decide to be more of a CEO or a mentor.  She may take up hang gliding or become a entrepreneur.  Those would be different roles.  Adventurer. Leader.
Most of the time you’ve got some basic roles that characters’ play: Hero, Love Interest, Sister, Mentor, Wise Buddy, Screw-up Buddy, Trickster, Villain.  If you can figure that out first, great.

2.  We like to think about what the character thinks they WANT.  Wants are big deals in screenplays.  Wants create action.  Wants make characters strive, fight and jump over hoops.   Every character, hell, every person you know, wants something in their lives they don’t have right now.  The bigger the want, the more action a character will take to get it.   Ask yourself, what does my character say they want?

3.  Underneath all that wanting is NEED.  Need is tricky. Need is a character’s secret engine.  Need is what makes a character choose wants.  I know that sounds complicated but it’s really not.
For example, you may NEED a hug but in the absence of someone giving you a squeeze, you decide you WANT ice cream.   You may need someone admiration, but not knowing how to get that, you want a new BMW.   Want speaks to the CONSCIOUS mind.  Need speaks to the UNCONSCIOUS mind.

Needs are driven by Core Wounds.  We talk about Core Wounds a lot. Those are the beliefs that limit us.  They usually fall into three categories – beliefs about self, beliefs about others or beliefs about God/the universe.
So in our example, our character needs a hug.  If our character were extremely balanced, healthy and without emotional ticks, he would get his hug.  He would know he deserved lots of hugs and there would be many supporting characters who would give him affection.

However, most characters are flawed.  They don’t get the hugs they need.  Why?  Generally they have a belief that keeps those hugs away from them.

Why would someone not be able to receive love in the form of a hug?

Here are some limiting beliefs that might come into play:
– I’m not loveable.
– Other people don’t love me for who I am.
– I’m ugly or no one wants to touch me.

So, even though a character wants a bowl of ice cream, what they need is a hug.  They aren’t getting that hug because their Core Wound is telling them “I’m not loveable.”

Core Wounds and their resulting needs literally organize your character’s lives in the beginning of your movie.  Your hero’s belief, in particular, organizes the world of the first act.  If they think they are unloveable, their world looks like that’s true.  No one loves them.  They eat alone in restaurants.  When they see other people hugging, they order an extra bowl of ice cream.

But that’s just the first act.  By the third act, your hero (in a classical Hollywood movie-style) is acting completely differently.  He’s changed.  Through the second act, he learns how to overcome that Core Wound.  Suddenly he knows how to get that need met.  His limiting belief is changing.  The climax of the movie proves that Core Wound has changed.  That’s what will make the movie so satisfying.  We love it when the lonely, the damaged, the afflicted find their way to triumph.  It’s a universal human desire to see darkness transform into light.

How do you show all that darkness transform into light?

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of this article where we talk about a really good trick, we call Dark & Light.

Part II in the series:

Part III in the series:



About Peter Russell Movie&TV Script Doctor

Think of me as a writer, teacher and story consultant with over 15 years experience working with studios. From this experience, I have developed a great class list that focuses on many areas in the business. Peter Russell Script Doctor offers a large variety of classes, so be sure to check back often to see if there is an offering for you. Find Out More...