Using Theme and Arc to Generate CharactersWritten by: Chris Soth, founder of MillionDollarScreenwriting.com
Published: Feb 11, 2009
I was consulting w/a student on an idea of hers the other day, not an awful lot so far, just a "one-line" but she did ask me at one point:
"We've got our main character, but what about some other characters? Who else is IN this movie?"
I was a little stunned at first. I don't really work that way, and for the most part, you probably don't either - I guess I won't be the first to make the disclaimer that most of this stuff we teach in screenwriting classes and books and even on our websites is often best employed till after the first draft. And I certainly won't be the last to say, "Write from you heart - REWRITE from your head." All this along the way of saying…usually it's slightly more organic and part of the writing process in the rough draft that we find and create the characters we need. Then we use the guidelines and "hard screenwriting knowledge" to refine and hone them.
But I'm always up for a challenge - and I was consulting and she asked. And the same rules and guidelines apply at all stages of the game, don't they? If writing is rewriting, and it IS, can't rewriting also be writing? By which I mean can't we bring some advanced-stage thinking to bear early in the game, before there's even a word on paper? Maybe…
The screenplay we'd been working on was a love story and we had thus far we had been focused on "boy" and "girl", as in the famous homily "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl…"
And I realized I WAS able to figure out some characters that needed to be in this story, just by the theme and the character arc that the main character was to go through…because…and excuse me if I'm stating the obvious, but I've never heard or seen anyone say this in quite this way:
A movie story is structured to deliver a THEME…
And that theme is contained in the Main Character's "Arc" - the path of change the character goes through in the story.
And so, roughly stated, the theme is every story is "Change is good." Or: the type of change depicted herein is good" OR - "if you're the type of person this main character is, you should change as s/he does."
Lastly, and here's where you can spin characters out of thin air with little more than a hero, his or her arc, your theme and your premise…
…all your characters, strictly speaking, are REFLECTIONS OF YOUR HERO, MAIN CHARACTER OR PROTAGONIST…we need them to throw your hero into high relief by comparison - comparison is one of the two vital tools for showing character. For example:
YOUR ANTAGONIST OR VILLAIN: Will be, for the most part, the antithesis of your main character, right? They will embody antithetical values. But they will have one vital thing in common with the hero - they will want the same thing, the same desire will drive them throughout the story.
And all your characters will be laid out somewhere, some way, on this same continuum of values…so…just making up these nicknames as I go along:
THE "YOU OUGHTA BE THIS GUY" GUY: This character has undergone the character arc that your main character needs to undergo, or just naturally got it goin' on in this one dimension of character. They serve as an illustration to your hero as to what he SHOULD become. Often the hero's best friend, counseling him to change, telling him what his problem is…sometimes sort of a moral guiding voice, other times more of what the French called "Le Raissionneur" - the character that expresses the author's viewpoint.
THE "WATCH OUT FOR THIS" GUY: This guy is the antithesis of the above guy (read "or gal" on all of these). He's what will happen to your hero IF he does not change and undergo this character arc, being like this guy, or worse, will be his fate. Sometimes in a a thriller/action sort of story this is the antagonist, but often, and we see her or him DESTROYED by the same desire our hero has…and his inability to change…but sometimes, it's a minor character that gives us and the hero a glimpse of what the end of the road holds for them if they don't turn away…
Essentially, a character each to represent either end of the main character's "character arc". Now, should they be living, breathing people as well? Of course. Should they come organically from the world our hero lives in? Absolutely. But, asked the question before I can live in that world or even have the hero fully drawn…this could be a jump start.
And now, some examples:
Call me old-fashioned, but I love Casablanca. It's great for examples and I've learned a lot, A LOT from it, because, well…
…it's a perfect movie. It's not my favorite movie of all time, but it IS a perfect movie or as near as has ever been made, and there may not have been one since. In fact, whenever I'm stuck for a scene, or wonder what a specific Mini-Movie should be in a story, it's not long before I'm asking myself:
"What do they do in Casablanca?"
In Casablanca, we've got Rick Blaine (as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart), he's an isolationist, won't stick his neck out for nobody, and serves only his self interest, especially when it comes to the woman he loves, Ilsa…
HE OUGHTA BE: Victor Lazlo (as portrayed by Paul Henreid), a selfless freedom fighter, who sticks his neck out for everyone, everywhere - and who will gladly sacrifice anything, everything for the woman he loves, Ilsa Lund.
And in fact, it looks like this is who Rick will become as the credits roll, as his character arc has completed - "Where I go, you can't follow, etc…" he's off to become a freedom fighter, to take on the Nazis and fight for the little guy, as he used to before Ilsa broke his heart in the backstory.
But…if Rick keeps up his selfish ways, he'll never be that guy. In fact, he'll become:
THE CAUTIONARY TALE: Captain "Louie" Renault (as portrayed by Claude Rains). Here's a man who "blows with the wind" and serves only his own self-interest…and when it comes to love - Louie's happy to "whore out" any or every woman he comes across…and his doing so w/a young Bulgarian refugee serves as an object lesson for Rick at one point…
This is what Rick has to avoid - and in the end, Louie ends up changing too, and heading off into the future WITH Rick.
So, Victor Lazlo, Captain Renault…both mirrors to Rick Blaine. One is what Rick SHOULD be…the other what he COULD become…
All of them arranged along the theme: "It's good to sacrifice for others.", and each at a different point on the hero's character arc.
Of course, you may do a lot of this on instinct in your rough draft. You may poke around it and not quite be sure what you're doing and why you're doing it. But ultimately, character, arc and theme will work together to provide a potent combination.
I hope this helps in your writing and you'll check out other tips like this from MillionDollarScreenwriting.com.
CHRIS SOTH developed the “Mini-Movie Method” after years of success as a Hollywood screenwriter. Chris has multiple projects in development at major Hollywood studios. This master story teller is also an expert in pitching and selling - necessary tools for a screenwriter in Hollywood. Chris holds an MFA in screenwriting and a BA in Dramatic Literature. He is the only seminar instructor whose work has been produced by a major Hollywood studio.