Fear as Motivation
Character can be the way into a script. Many writers begin the screenwriting process by finding a character that fascinates them. They are intrigued by the character’s occupation, or history or personality. They might become intrigued by an element of quirkiness. But these elements are only surface elements of character.
The writer must make deep discoveries of the character’s need and fear. When writing the script the characters that will move through a story with purpose and drive, are characters that are motivated by a sense of desperation. Desperation occurs when the hero is trapped in the journey by a plotline that gives zero options to the Hero except the option of moving forward in spite of fear. The writer then figures out how to further trap the hero by raising the stakes—making the consequence of failure so extreme, that your hero must go forward in spite of the fear.
The first draft of creating plot is also the first draft of creating characters. The writer typically looks at the characters in a personal manner. Asking oneself, is this a character I want to spend time with? Is it a character I’d want as a neighbor or a spouse or a gynecologist?
But writing a character is more than filling out a character resume. A character in a movie also has to do the work of creating and holding structure. It’s the Hero who stands in the crosshairs of conflict and chaos. He or she is the person in the story that is put into danger so that the writer can compel conflict, suspense and tension. Without the building blocks of conflict, the story is nothing more than a series of scenes culminating in an explosive moment of action, blood and death at the climax of the movie. But the climax scene will have no meaning if the sustaining conflict is absent.
In building characters, a writer is wise to ask, “What is the fear that motivates my character?” The examination of character fear should be clinical in analysis.
Is it fear that benefits the character in terms of the story?
Is it a fear that’s primitive and visceral?
Is the fear easily understood by the audience and easily illuminated on screen?
Is it fear that can build scenes of comedy or drama in an organic way?
Writers, whether they are new to screenwriting or experienced professionals often fall in love with their characters to the detriment of story. They have a special love for the Hero who moves through the story page by page and scene by scene. They imbue the Hero with a kind affection. They show a gentle consideration to the Hero saving him or her from the pain of conflict created by deprivation, attack and deceit--virtually guaranteeing a flat plot that holds little interest for the reader and almost no chance of getting a greenlight to production.
Very simply, we writers identify with the Hero. So in constructing a plot of pain, vicious provocation and worse—outright loss—well? We take it personally. All the old memories of our own past roar to the surface. The memory of living through humiliating loss, shameful harassment and embarrassing misunderstandings bubble to the surface as we write our stories. Writers, in an effort at self-protection, now protect their own Hero. In identifying with the a Hero who is set-up from page one to go through a plotline that is built to allow an Antagonist to win against the Hero for at least ninety percent of the movie—it becomes the trigger for our own past horrors like an old soldier experiencing night terrors.
Who wouldn’t want to avoid that?
But the paradox is—the very past that conjures up all those fears is also the very reason we write.
So what’s a writer to do?
Simply put—stop identifying with the Hero. Instead, identify with your Antagonist. Simply put—stop identifying with the Hero. Instead, identify with your Antagonist.
Scary thought, I know.
But if the Hero shows the true self of the Writer, so too does the Antagonist.
The grab for power, the superficial need for sex instead of love, the bullying, the addiction, the lie at the center of it all—that’s the Writer’s truth too.
If the Writer has the privilege of identifying with the Hero—well then—we also have the burden of embracing the worst traits of ourselves in the Antagonist.
Trust yourself as a Writer. It’s all on the page and it’s only a story, at least that’s what you can tell yourself as you push through each act to get to the climax scene. Once there, finally—justice, rightness of cause, true love, reunited family and ultimately forgiveness will find its way through every part of your story.
All because you found a way to love your Antagonist. Which is another way of saying, you finally found a way to love yourself.
Loving you, dear Writer.