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The Perfect 10

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Paul Ashton | 09:53 UK time, Friday, 19 December 2008

And here's instalment four:

Character is Everything

I could have started with this. It's the beginning, middle and end of what makes or breaks a great script - and a great writer. You can have everything else, but if you don't create strong, vivid, compelling characters then you ultimately have very little.

We need to engage with your characters on an emotional level. We don't need to like them. We can even despise them. But they must have a human, emotional life. Even if they are a robot - there's humanity in Arnie's Terminator and Wall-E. Frank Gallagher is a disaster of a father who does terrible things for terrible reasons, but there are enough human shaped chinks in his armour to make us engage with him - for example, when Debbie is being pressurised into losing her virginity, he melts, realising she is still his little girl.

We have to want to spend time with your characters. We need to understand their desires, soak up their energy, feel their pain, fear for them. The vicarious thrill in wondering what Frank Gallagher or Richard III will do next is just as important as wondering whether two romantic leads will in fact get together at the end, or whether Tom Hanks will get Private Ryan home, or whether David Brent will ever realise just how embarassingly bad a boss he really is.

To be hooked by your characters, we need to feel compelled to go on their journey with them. It sounds neat and tidy, but if we don't know what they want, then we won't care about what they have to do to get it, and enjoy the ups and downs of them doing so. Give them a journey to go on - whether that's Basil Fawlty fending off the hotel inspector or Sam trying to get back to 2007 in Life on Mars.

The crucial thing, therefore, is to make them active. Passive, reactive characters just don't hook us. The problem with many scripts we receive is that the central character doesn't drive the story forward. If we know what they want, and see them having to make decisions and take action to get it, then you set up a dynamic and momentum with your character and their story.

If you're ever stuck with your character in a scene, sequence or plot point, then try asking these questions of them: What do they want by the end of this scene? What do they want when they wake up the next morning? What do they want in a years time? And what do they want by the end of their life? They might not know or fully realise all the answers, but it will give you a way into your character, and help give them a life that is perhaps outside the action of your story, but crucial to who they are in any given moment.

And of course, they need to be individuals rather than cliches and stereotypes. So invest time in working out - and then showing - what it is that makes them truly distinct and unlike any other character we've ever met. They may have an archetypal quality to them - but what else do they bring to the archetype?

A useful way to clarify what makes them an individual, is to try to look at the world they are in from their point of view - and therefore allow the audience to do the same. Show us their window on the world. Allow us to see their desires, insights, feelings, opinions, prejudices, fears and misunderstandings from their own point of view. If you can do that, then the character and the world they inhabit will be much richer.


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