Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Remember the last time you felt really satisfied and said to yourself, “this is it, I don’t want anything else in life: I gave everything, I know everything, I am love.”
Yeah, I know… sometimes it happens, but it lasts just for a few moments… and before we’re aware, we feel this strange feeling of unease (or pain) again and if we have at least basic self-awareness, we also want to do something about it or something good with it.
Conflict is born out of desire, a character is born out of conflict
Our struggling (pain and fear) and our purpose (love) are what define us.
But to overcome pain and also to find the purpose are not easy tasks; on the contrary, those are the most difficult tasks in our lives and this is exactly the reason why those two elements define us.
And honestly, when this feeling of pure bliss finally comes, we will know that it’s the end of our story, at least in this reality. So, like it or not, struggling is the name of the game— for now. What to do about it is the question?
Well, if you are a storyteller, I have good news for you; this is exactly the nucleus of psychological material that you have to use to build your characters. Dealing with it from an outside perspective will maybe, hopefully even transform you.
So, what defines us human beings, in essence, defines a good character as well.
Who is a Character?
The difference between the need/ objective reality and desire/ subjective reality
Let’s drill this down:
The main problem of every human being is the feeling of separation, which can lead to this (internal) feeling of being broken or not being enough or not being worthy. So, we hide, we feel pain, we are depressed, we feel inadequate and then we experience longing for something to fill the void: (NUCLEUS OF DISSATISFACTION – WOUND, PAIN, FEAR, FLAW).
We want more loving relationships, we want friends who can understand us, we want more money. We want to fit in, we long to do something and make a change, we have a GOAL, a DESIRE, sometimes we also want to fight or even kill.
But wanting anything really is not the end of the problem; it’s just the beginning of it. Because as soon as we desire something, our subjective reality crashes into objective reality and we then experience rejections and obstacles in the outside world and we enter into a vicious circle. And if nothing else, our heart drags us to one side (emotions), our brain often to the other (rationality). This vicious circle is THE CONFLICT, and a character’s journey in every story.
“As stories are polarized duality, every character is also polarized with his or her inner demons”, Christopher Vogler.
Usually, we are not aware of the cause of our problem, so we are also not aware of what is actually going to help us, for real. So we want all sorts of different things, all sorts of different partners, before we lower our ego defenses, or become brave enough or crazy enough to realize what we actually need in order to feel whole and peaceful. (NEED)
In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) the main character, Joe Gillis, a screenwriter whose scripts don’t sell is torn between Norma Desmond’s pool (a success) and his deepest needs: pure love and creativity, represented by young screenwriter Betty Schaefer. The main conflict lies in the question: “Can an artist sell his dream and still be an artist?”
In Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) the main character, Mia, is in love with her mom’s lover who could almost be her father. So, Mia’s sexual desire and her need for a father figure are conflicted. While Mia is experiencing the story, her mother went through a long time ago (which is exactly her problem and her wound), Mia chooses to react differently, she stands up for herself. When she gets (a rejection) and for a brief moment also a father, she can forgive her mom. Then she is ready for the new chapter - something genuine with a guy her own age.
The difference between characterization and a character
Remember, you can know a lot about your character: age, where he or she comes from, how he/she walks, talks, what he/she is wearing, his/her job or education – that’s all characterization, but you still will not have what’s needed to build a character if you don’t define his or her biggest conflict – between his or her fear and his or her biggest dream. Only then will you know the core of who he/she is.
As Robert McKee would say in Story: “Character is born under the pressure.”
Two components of “Fundamental weakness” or pain
And then there is something very interesting that John Truby talks about. He says that there are actually two components of this “fundamental weakness.” One is psychological, I would say internal, but the other is external and it manifests as a moral flaw, the way a character behaves in the outside world because he feels what he feels in the inside world. So it’s not just important for a character to “Save the cat” so that we can love him/her, it is also very much important for him/her to be arrogant, aggressive, egocentric… whatever you feel is his or her way of dealing with troubling feelings inside, so that we, as the audience, can see that something is wrong with him and sympathize with him as well. From this character trait, we are also going to have callbacks in the story once a character is changed.
Once you start to sympathize with the character, the process of identification has begun and you can say that what you have is maybe the main character. IDENTIFICATION also marks the first dramatic function a hero has in the story.
When does a character become the Protagonist (the main character)?
HERO AND OTHER DRAMATIC FUNCTIONS
The protagonist’s actions either open up opportunities or provoke obstacles. Once the protagonist starts the journey, he/she exposes his/her wound even more and it’s essential that they do something about it.
Once you are in the ocean, you have to swim, otherwise, you will drown. ACTION is the only way out, giving up is just not an option. Let your character lead the way so he can lead you and us! This is one of the most important story functions that can also help you define who your main character is.
The protagonist or hero is the one who has the power to decide and he/she is able to take risks and make SACRIFICES.
The hero is someone who is willing to give his/her all. This is very important for the audience to take the story seriously. In Locke (2013) the main character, Ivan Locke, is willing to sacrifice everything – his family, his wife, his job – for the sake of integrity he feels is essential for him to move forward as a human being.
The main character is the one who suffers the most but his or her STRONG WILL to overcome suffering is huge.
He/she is the one who is going TO CHANGE, to grow, because he/she is willing to change and is able to grow. This is also one of the most important questions that can answer, “who is my main character?” (Chris Vogler argues that if you have a ‘Catalyst Hero’ then he/she is not going to change in the story – he will help others change).
Also, an ‘antihero’ is not able to change either, but at least he tries. That’s the difference. And note that an ‘antihero’ is not an ‘antagonist.’ An antihero is the main character/hero who is an outsider, outlaw, outcast, someone who is actually even unwilling to change or learn, someone who has lost his faith. His or her flaws are so ingrained in him or her that he/she cannot overcome them. That’s actually a tragic hero.
OTHER ARCHETYPES AND THEIR FUNCTIONS
When a character becomes the antagonist (the main opponent)?
The antagonist is often the personification of the protagonist’s biggest fear. The antagonist is the shadow. In theory, the antagonist or villain has to be as “evil” as possible so that the protagonist has a respectful opponent. And he is the one who is not changing.
Remember Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Jonathan Demme?
His wound is so deep that he cannot access it from the point of a conscious mind. No matter how hard he tries, all he can do is to cause more pain. On the contrary, the main character, Clarice is the one who is going to do everything to overcome the pain.
And you would ask, who is Hannibal Lector then if Buffalo Bill is the antagonist? He is actually the ‘mentor antagonist’ and does he change?? No, he doesn’t, but he helps Clarice to change.
“As soon as you enter the world of fairy tales and myths, you become aware of recurring character types and relationships: question heroes, heralds who call them to adventure, wise old men and women who give them magical gifts, threshold guardians who seem to block their way, shapeshifting fellow travelers who confuse and dazzle them, shadowy villains who try to destroy them, tricksters who upset the status quo and provide comic relief. “
Those character archetypes are described in depth in The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.
*Notice that I made a difference between the character and main character.
That’s because I believe all characters, the antagonist as well, have their own core wound and they are torn between their fears and their desires. If they are mentors or helpers this wound is something they may have overcome once before, so that’s why they know how to help the hero. The function of the character is going to be defined by what those characters are going to do with this core wound that they have.
Of course, you are not going to have time to explore all of those characters in depth in your film, and that’s not the point.
The point is actually that all of them are just mirror reflections of your hero.
Always remember that both Norma Desmond and Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard have wounds and desires! While the main character, Joe Gillis is giving up on his dreams to become successful, Norma Desmond already experienced success as an actress and on a grander scale but as one even remembers her now, she is writing her screenplay for the big return. Betty is at the beginning of her screenwriting journey and she is not willing to give up even though she operated her nose once when she wanted to become an actress. See how Norma and Betty are also mirrors of each other!
“The Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness. In the process of becoming complete, integrated human beings, we are ALL heroes facing internal guardians, monsters, and helpers… Another way to look at the classic archetypes is that they are facets of the hero’s personality. The other characters represent possibilities for the hero for good or evil… they are emanations of the hero.” The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.
Is there a difference between a mythical protagonist (hero) and a psychological protagonist?
Yes, there is. Note also that to build a mythical protagonist, and we more often call him a hero (her- heroine) you would need archetypal pain, conflict, desire so that we can say “Oh, this is every father (authority figure), every mother (nurturer), every child (innocent)… to mention just a few archetypes that Jung described.
Usually, main characters built that way are also the main characters in genre movies (melodrama, noir, western… and also in comedy) and they are sometimes closer to character types.
Conan the Barbarian (1982) by John Milius – every man, in order to become the king, needs to defeat and kill his “spiritual father,” his evil opponent Thulsa Doom.
But, to build a protagonist in a psychological drama, you would need his/her own unique wound, his/her own unique goal – even though a lot of times we actually use both models to build as a rich hero as possible. To understand the difference: Not every young girl would sleep with her mom’s lover, but every young girl needs a father – Fish tank.
See my previous post about psychological and archetypal conflict in films, if you haven’t already.
Let’s recap and if you are writing a screenplay along with me this is your first HOMEWORK assignment for this week:
Define a character’s pain or “fundamental weakness” as a result of some emotional wound from the past.
Define the moral weakness, which is the way characters deal with the pain in the outside world, at the beginning of the movie.
Define the character’s conscious desire (or a dream or goal).
And define what’s hidden in the subconscious but most essentially needed.
Your story is going to be about overcoming emotional and moral weaknesses by using desire as an engine while discovering the most needed essence at the end – the change.
HOMEWORK number 2:
Imagine your character has a voice over monologue at the beginning of your movie. Write it down even though you are maybe never going to use it. It can help you tremendously to figure out the voice and the conflict of your main character.
For a good example of this, watch the first ten minutes of Sunset Boulevard (1950), by Billy Wilder.
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