In this screenwriting lesson, I discuss character: What are the different character archetypes using the Monomythic structure, what the difference is between wants versus needs of your character, and how to create a fictional character that feels independent.
WHY EMPATHY MATTERS
Movies are about empathy. They are gateways into untapped feelings that start at the screenplay, and end at the journey onscreen. Movies communicate honest truths about human psychology and relationships. They get us to acknowledge that we are not alone out there. That there is in fact another person, like us, whose experiences and hardships – we can relate to.
Relating to others, including empathy for fictional characters onscreen, triggers similar neurotransmitters pathways in the brain, as if we were experiencing the motions ourselves. This is the real product of entertainment: from violent videogames down to sex in pornography. Entertainment is like a training simulation, allowing us to emulate, stimulate, educate, and process for ourselves – safely from a distance. Rehearse the what if scenario’s in our head.
For instance, I find apocalypse stories entertaining, but I’d never want to be in one – I’d be one of the first to die, easily.
Getting into a fight, laughing at a joke, and even falling in love, these are powerful emotions triggered on the screen. What’s human about it is that we can project ourselves through our conscious onto the character and feel what it’s like to be in the moment… if only for a moment.
Characters you can relate to capture elements of your personality. Which is why I think building good characters, is the most important part of writing your screenplay. They’re your entry point into the story, but also, where the audience’s sense of agency holds onto within this constructed world. Every decision, conflict, victory, and defeat; every experience, is felt through your characters – evoking emotions to your audience. Your character is the center of your story, at least it is for character-driven writers, such as myself.
To create a new character, you’re going to have to build it from the ground up. Give them personality, physicality, attributes, quirks, and even dreams – qualities characteristic of a real person. Depending on the story you’re trying to create, you’ll most likely base your characters on a person, or a thing, you’ve encountered within your lifetime. The thing is people have been doing this for ages. The Monomythic Screenwriting blog is all about showing you the tools people have used a million times in the past.
That said, here are the twelve character archetypes, often associated with Monomyths and Jungian psychology. You don’t have to follow these exactly to build characters, and a good amount of them I think personally overlap/are sort of outdated caricatures, but they do provide a solid starting point. To make it fun, I’ll use The Avengers as an example for each.
- The Innocent: Optimistic people who desire a free world of expression you can be yourself in. They seek to be happy and for the world better to be a better place – yet they dislike bending the rules. Their biggest fear is to be punished for evil, as they always try and do the right thing. Idealists fall into this category. Think Captain America. Spider-man too.
- The Orphan: Down-to-earth people who desire to connect with others and belong. They seek to fit in and are afraid of abandonment, as they are as empathic and approachable as they come. They tend to be morally grey and represent sort of the ‘everyman’ role in the world. Almost every main character fall into this category. I’d also go with Bruce Banner as the best representation in Avenger’s world, as he’s down to earth but very disconnected.
- The Hero: Courageous people who desire to make their mark on the world for the better. They are afraid of weakness and will push through any obstacle with strength and determination. However, they do have a weakness in their arrogance. Thor fits perfect in this category.
- The Caregiver: Compassionate people who seek to heal and protect others. They loathe selfishness, as they often give too much of themselves, and will always try to help whenever possible. Their empathy, however, can sometimes be exploited. Scarlett Witch comes to mind for me, as she’s both compassionate and has been exploited. As does Captain Marvel, who is literally off to protect an entire race in a one-woman war against the Kree.
- The Explorer: Ambitious people who like autonomy and authenticity. They risk being an aimless misfit, but also tend to live a much more fulfilling lifestyle, always seeking their
heartsdesire. They hate being tied down and aspire for freedom above everything else. Starlord and The Guardians of The Galaxy make the most sense to me.
- The Rebel: Radical people who break the rules. They will break the law, disrupt governments, and rage against authority – and provide the ultimate examples of radical freedom. However, they fear
beingineffectual, worst of all: irrelevant. Always fighting for a cause but never seeking actual peace. They risk turning evil as rebels often boarder a moral line. This is easily The Hulk, but also, Rocket Racoon. Wolverine as well though he’s not an ‘official’ avenger… yet.
- The Lover: Sensual people who provide support and intimacy. They utilize their charisma and sex appeal first and foremost, which can often catch people off guard. They bring a lot of heart to the team as they often desire
beingclose to someone, which is why they are often easy to fall in love with and are frequently paired with the orphan – who also fears beingalone. Please don’t hate me, but the one that fits this best is Black Widow (which would explain the pairing with Bruce Banner. I swear, I used avengersas a random example).
- The Creator: Creative people who are both innovative and imaginative. They have tremendous vision and problem-solving capabilities and desire to leave an enduring legacy through their creations. They tend to be heavily tied to culture, especially of their world and are prone to unrealistic aspirations of perfectionism. Iron Man fits this category easily. As does Shuri, the Black Panther’s sister.
- The Jester: Usually funny people who bring joy to their community. They live for the moment and are often uplifting, with an unnatural ability to bring positive energy at even the worst of moments – a blessing, but also at times, a burden. Being boring is their greatest fear. I want to say Drax the Destroyer from the Guardians of The Galaxy, but the most obvious choice in Marvel’s universe: Deadpool.
- The Sage: Wise people who provide expertise and mentorship. They usually teach a character something we don’t understand about the world. They desire the pursuit and preservation of knowledge above all else and always try to gain a better understanding of the world. However, their studies also distract them from actions, as the sage knows the heavy costs of recklessness – it’s how they’ve outlived their cohorts, and became masters, after all. Nick Fury has fulfilled this role, but so does Vision. Iron Man too in relationship to Spider-man.
- The Magician: Mysterious people who make things happen. We don’t always understand their methods, but they seem to be able to make the impossible come true. They stick to their vision and abide by it, yet they’re also manipulative and don’t anticipate the negative consequences of their actions. They also seek to understand the universe, however, in reckless action in pursuit of truth, they tend to accidentally destroy things too. Magicians tend to fall into the law of equivalent exchange, where something cannot be made without sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, Doctor Strange falls into this as he’s a bit of a hot head, but one who makes the impossible happen at a cost. Tony Stark falls into this category too, both men are brilliantly innovative, yet also have a history of leaving behind a trail of destruction.
- The Ruler: Leaders who call the shots and rule over things. They dictate a lot of the big choices in the
world,and desire above everything else: maintaining control. They fear beingineffectual leaders unable to delegate or command, and their morality is up to the type of ruler. Black Panther falls into this category, easily.
Try This: Build an Archetypical Character
- Build three archetypical characters using the twelve examples listed above. You can even fuse some of the archetypes together. Just be creative.
- Write your characters in a scene together. If you really want, you can even put some of your favorite Avengers together. I’ll even spitball a few ideas, but feel free to go wild:
- The Group attends a funeral after having not seen each other in a long time.
- The Group attends to an awkward mistake.
- The Group argues over chores or errands. Think about assigning who to get coffee or pick up the dry cleaning… maybe even who must feed the cat.
- The Group attends a party together.
- The Group holds an intervention.
- The Group attends court together.
WANTS VERSUS NEED
A well-constructed character should be detailed enough where you can throw them into any situation and know how they’d react.
Let’s say you were on a spaceship with a crew of guests and engineers, when suddenly, the ship stopped. You’re now stranded in space. To make matters worse, some sort of mysterious creeping stowaway is starting to pickoff passengers and crew. Who would you rather have on the ship: Ellen Ripley from Aliens or Doc Brown from Back to the Future? I can envision Ripley barking command and getting people in-line in order to survive. Likewise, I can see Doc Brown pulling off some crazy research experiment to better understand the creature, or maybe work with the engineers to fix the engine.
The point is, we get these characters and know what they’d likely do. While the outcome of what happens will depend on your needs for the story, you should have an overall idea about what choices and decisions your character would like to make. The key is knowing the difference about what your characters want and what your characters (and story) needs.
Want – Is based on who your character is at the beginning of the story. It’s usually extrinsic, an object of affection, or something external that’ll make the person’s life easier – though not necessarily better.
Need – Is based on who your character will become by the end of the story. It’s usually intrinsic, a life lesson, or newfound relationship, something that’ll change this person’s life for the better. However, it has got to be something intangible. A lesson of sorts that the person takes with them. Something motivated by growth and change by story’s end.
Try This: Wants Versus Needs.
- Describe your protagonist. Jot everything that comes to mind about them.
- Think about what your character would want more than anything else in the world. Make something up if you can’t think of anything. Based on what you know about them, what does your protagonist ultimately want at the beginning of your story?
- Think about the message or theme you want to convey in your story. Think about how you want the audience to feel when leaving the theatre. With that in mind, what does your protagonist need by your story’s end?
Characters should be independent enough to have their own thoughts and opinions. You’re constructing people, which should be grounded with such verisimilitude that your audience should naturally think these are actual people. If writing fiction is the magic of make believe, the most dangerous thing I think you can do is a writer – is create a character that feels false or inauthentic. It’s something that breaks the dream and distracts from the story. Worst of all, character mistakes are a lot less forgiving… as they continue throughout the entirety of your narrative. It’s easy to forgive an action of discretion. It’s hard to forgive poor character development.
You will need to make authentic feeling characters. To do so, you’ll need to base a lot of who they are off experience, research, and even, people you know in the actual real world.
Eventually, you will have to learn how to trust them on their own. I know that sounds strange, as they’re not ‘real’ people, but if you must let them be independent. If you can’t separate your characters enough from yourself, you risk coddling them, watering down the conflicts, and telling a boring story.
Don’t do that. Have your heroes go through every possible difficulty you can imagine. How they overcome problems, builds character, and lets keeps your audience compelled.
Rule of Thumb: If you can add conflict, do it.
Try This: Making Independent Characters.
- I want you to take a character you’ve built and put them in a situation they excel in. Write their ‘Save The Cat’ moment – let them be a hero/excel in what they’re good at. Showcase what makes them special. If your character is a pilot, let them fly. If they’re a romantic, let them win over your heart. If they’re funny… give us moments of laughter or tell us jokes – show us why this person is funny.
- Now, I want you to pull
an experiencefrom your life. Something from the darkest recesses of your journal. I want you to write about the most embarrassing experience of your life. Don’t worry, you do not have to share with anyone but yourself.
- Now using that same experience… I want you to write what it would be like if your created character, went through your most embarrassing life experience. Highlight those differences, as that’s what makes your character independent from yourself.
A lot of the time writers hit the wall is because they don’t know where to take their character next. Ask yourself, what would this character do? By the end of these lessons, you should be able to know.
Next week, I’m going to have you go even further into character development, including building extensive attribute lists, how to model your character, and how to utilize situations.