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.