Now that we’ve got an idea of what our scripts are going to be about its time to start building a story. The first thing we need to do now is think about characters. Your protagonist is probably not the only one in the film and everybody in the story must be a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. Who they are, what they want and why they are there are crucial questions to ask of anyone before giving them a place in the story. If a character is included solely to perform a task that you need to take place, they will be lifeless and irrelevant.
Take a moment to list a roster of characters in your film and consider their relationship to the story and the other characters. Develop them as more than mere tools or dolls. They must bring soul to the part to be worth playing. A hollow character is easy to spot. Usually the actor gets blamed, but there is no way to salvage bad writing.
This is a point where you absolutely cannot be too detailed. Write everything you can think of about everybody. Even if it doesn’t get used later, what you know about your world and the characters that populate it will enrich the script you finally write. The more facts you conjure, the more options there are to explore when it comes to the telling of your tale.
To that end, you may just as well apply the 6 C’s to anyone in the story. At the very least, the people in your story must be real to you. You should be able to hear them speak in their own voice and know what they want. Some of these people will be assigned an important role in your script if they haven’t already.
If you’ve been working at screenwriting for a while, you probably know about Joseph Campbell, the mythology expert who wrote the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. His work on identifying key factors in the history of story is widely recognized among writers. He points out, in his book, some of the common purposes served by peripteral characters which have been around as long as the ancients. They are archetypes that as described were more literally adhered to long ago, but the spirit of these archetypes remains relevant. There are only to ways to fail here. One is to ignore these roles altogether. The other is to be disingenuous, going through the motions without including heart or truth. It’s in the latter that we see work that is dubbed cliché, or derivative, but great work uses these principles without criticism because the audience approves.
The archetypes of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” are: Hero, Mentor, Guardian/Gatekeeper, Harald, Shapeshifter Shadow, and Trickster. Their roles are a part of a process that will help us to further map out our story.
The Hero’s journey is not strictly applicable to every story any more that every protagonist can be called a hero. However, it is an excellent starting point for building a story and assessing the path your characters are to take. That being said, most films have more parallels to the hero’s journey than differences. and it’s wise to take a look at them especially where propelling your story is concerned. It is an excellent compass.
First off, your hero starts in his ordinary world. A disturbance rattles the hero’s awareness away from the comforts of his daily life. This is often the job of the herald who– historically speaking– issues a challenge to the hero, or announces something concerning his fate. This is known as the “call to adventure” (I’ll later refer to it as the inciting incident), which the hero will first refuse, but then later must accept. He seeks the aid of a mentor which still happens in the traditional sense, but these days the mentor could easily be a smart phone. It’s a way to strengthen and focus the character for the challenges ahead. The Guardian marks a threshold the hero must cross. There are at least two major thresholds to cross– the first and second act break.
The shapeshifter is a character whose loyalties are in question and often misleads the hero. He may literally shape shift or simply change sides, motives, personalities, etc. In some cases, even the hero might also wear the shapeshifter mask. The trickster s another mischief-maker. He can be on the side of good or bad, but his foolishness might betray his loyalties, causing trouble for those on his team. It’s particularly hard on the hero to have a trickster amongst friends as loyalty will cause him to face unnecessary dangers to rescue him. Finally, the shadow is the dark/negative/evil force in the story. It’s what the Hero must ultimately overcome.
There are other elements of the journey we will get to as we talk more about act structure over the next few posts, but the players on your stage are of most importance at the moment.