Contact: Call Peter: 310 774 1276

My Daily Write: Driving with Characters

First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.
– Ray Bradbury

Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better.
– V. S. Pritchett

We all want to write character-driven stories.  There’s nothing worse that an all action plot where the characters are cardboard cut-outs going through the motions.  That kind of thing should be left for video games.

But how do you create a character-driven story?  First you have to start with a character.  A real person.  Someone who lives and breathes before they ever find their way to the page. For most of us, this is easy enough. We can imagine a friend, a brother or our boss.

The trick is getting them to live on the page too.  What do you have at your disposal to make that character live?  Details.  Physical details.  Think meeting someone in a cafe.  How quickly do you assess who they are based on clothing, physical details and what they carry with them (props)?

Who are these women?

– Tall, running clothes, Louis Vuitton diaper bag, iPhone
– Blackberry, sensible heels, short hair, no make-up

Without a stitch of dialogue you have the beginnings of character through costume, props, and physical description.

Now add mood (lighting and sounds), sets, set dressing when you introduce them….

– A crying baby, a Range Rover that has seen better days, an early morning rainstorm in Portland, a line of cars waiting for gas at the discount gas station
– The clatter of ringing phones, a desk stacked high with paper, a stack of unopened wedding gifts with a note that says “to be returned”

Now you almost have a beginning of a story without having written a scene.

What’s missing?

A goal.

Give your character a strong desire in the beginning of your movie and make sure that they are always working toward it in someway.  Even when they’ve lost their way, the audience should have a sense that your character WANTS something very, very badly.

To go home.
To kill the beast.
To find the diamonds.
To stop the crime.
To stop the train.
To get a date.

Specificity is your friend. Instead of giving your character an abstract goal like “love.” Choose a goal that is concrete. If there is not a physical manifestation of the goal – it’s not concrete enough to drive your character.

In the end your character might get a whole lot more than they originally wanted.  In fact they also might get what they needed:


But they would never have gotten anything in their journey if they didn’t start with a strong goal or desire driving them forward.

I know what my character wants.
Just like in life what my character wants usually doesn’t include what my character truly needs.
I have the confidence to tell simple stories with complex characters.

Script of the day:  American Beauty

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...