Char­acter models

Here are some key analyt­ical models which may be useful in devel­oping your own characters:

Char­acter as Action

Aris­totle came up with one of the first (and still prob­ably the soundest) analyt­ical descrip­tions of char­acter. He said unequi­voc­ally: there is no such thing!

According to Aris­totle, what we call “char­acter” is simply habitual action. It is liter­ally what the person does in pursuit of his or her objective.

Char­ac­ters, viewed in this way, personify specific conflicting forces at work within a meta­phor­ical arena.  They operate in time; each with their own momentum and following their own trajectory.

From this perspective, the writer, playing at God in the world of his story, creates char­ac­ters primarily according to their func­tion. He conceives the drama liter­ally in terms of character.

The Dynamic Of Desire

Every char­acter is propelled by a need for some­thing or some­body. The key ques­tions to ask then in every case are always the same:

What do they want?
Why do they want it?

The answer to the first ques­tion describes the character’s Outer Motiv­a­tion. It should be answer­able in terms of a concrete goal (or goals) which can be achieved by taking phys­ical steps. The nature of this ambi­tion is normally revealed by the unfolding action.

The answer to the second ques­tion: “Why do they want it?” describes the character’s Inner Motiv­a­tion. This is the character’s reason for pursuing an action. It may be part of a “hidden agenda” or the char­acter may not be aware of it at all. It is more often revealed through dialogue.


Bringing char­ac­ters to life

If your char­ac­ters are not convin­cing creations or you feel they have no inner life, nine times out of ten it is because you are not putting enough focus or energy on their goals. Every char­acter, just like every human being on this planet, wants some­thing – and they want it all the time!

Char­ac­ters are like sharks; sharks supposedly die if they stop swim­ming. Char­ac­ters die on the page and on the screen the minute they stop wanting some­thing – wanting it and actively pursuing it. Even when they are appar­ently doing nothing, they should have some kind of agenda going on.

Michael Caine tells a story about a bril­liant piece of direc­tion he was given as a young actor: even when an actor plays a char­acter that has no lines to say, he should be thinking about all the things he could say – thinking about them and then choosing not to say them.

An actor, in other words, should never be ‘doing nothing’ – and neither should a char­acter. You want to write char­ac­ters where the poten­tial for inter­esting and mean­ingful action remains present at all times.

Deep Char­acter

Another inter­esting way of looking at the concept of char­acter is based on an ‘archae­olo­gical’ model of human psycho­logy. Char­ac­ters are made up of a set of observ­able char­ac­ter­istics and a core of moral and ethical values which consti­tute their true nature – or Deep Char­acter.

The relevant ques­tions to ask on behalf of your char­acter are these:

“Who do I want you to think I am?” These are aspects under the control of the char­acter.
“Who do I think I am?” These are hidden aspects which only the char­acter knows.
“Who am I really?” These are aspects that may be hidden even from the character.

It is the func­tion of the story to draw out Deep Char­acter and change it through events and choices imposed by events. Char­ac­ters are revealed by the choices they make under pres­sure so your quest is to create a story that will put the char­acter into a meta­phor­ical vice and turn it until the ‘real’ char­acter emerges.

Of course, this applies to comedy char­ac­ters too: those who are trying desper­ately to keep up a pretence or who suffer from delu­sions of grandeur.  The line distin­guishing pathos and comedy is a thin one here and can be crossed over to great effect.

In Paper Moon 1970, a fading beauty (Madelaine Kahn) is trying to persuade a stub­born child (Tatum O’Neal) not to compete for her father’s affec­tions. In this funny and poignant scene, the character’s ‘masks’ are stripped away under pres­sure to reveal her true self and win over the child.

Wisdom and wounds

The actress Sybil Thorndike had a mantra that she would repeat when she went on stage: “I am young, I’m beau­tiful, and I have a secret.”  She was not a partic­u­larly pretty woman and she acted well into her sixties but the mantra preserved for her a feeling of ‘special­ness’ that she needed to sustain her.

Char­ac­ters can have secrets, hidden wounds they keep concealed. They can also have their own partic­ular wisdom, even the stupid ones, insight that is uniquely theirs. Looking for these elements in your char­acter is another way of making them more three dimensional.

Char­acter by Classification

Char­ac­ters are often categor­ised by their func­tion or roles within the story. These are the two key players in nearly every story:

The Prot­ag­onist is gener­ally an indi­vidual; although multiple prot­ag­on­ists are allowed, providing they have the same objective. He or she must be a willful human being pursuing a conscious and/or uncon­scious goal (If these are different it can be an inter­esting source of conflict.) The Prot­ag­onist must be sympath­etic or at least empath­etic and capable of pursuing their goal to the end of the line.

The Antag­onist, also some­times called ” The Nemesis “, is an embod­i­ment or repres­ent­ative of the forces opposing the Prot­ag­onist. He or she must be a specific char­acter, not a collective noun. There can be more than one Antagonist.

You know, in many ways, Mr Bond, you and I are the same …

How often have you heard these words, or some­thing like them, coming out of an antagonist’s mouth? Giving the prot­ag­onist some­thing in common with the antag­onist is a classic dramatic device. It provides the prot­ag­onist with one more obstacle to over­come. Moral certainty is boring. Inter­esting heroes are usually flawed indi­viduals with weak­nesses – they have some Achilles heel that can be exploited by their enemies or puts them at risk.

So long as you don’t crowd your movie, there’s room for three kinds of conflict. There’s an external antag­onist, which may be a person, an organ­iz­a­tion, or just a situ­ation (beat the clock). There is often also an intimate opponent: someone on the side of the hero who is untrust­worthy, or gets in his way, or distracts him.

Then there’s the hero’s flaw. In the best drama, the hero’s flaw ties in with the antag­onist, so that by confronting the antag­onist, he is forced to confront his worst fears. So in a horror movie about were­wolves, it might be good if the hero’s deepest fear is to lose control of himself. But all vices have their virtues: the hero may discover that his worst flaw gives him a weapon people without that flaw may not have.

Alex Epstein, Inter­me­diate Screenwriting

© David Clough 1995

Engin­eering a story from character

Aaron Sorkin, the scriptwriter of The West Wing and Steve Jobs, describes how inten­tion and obstacle provide a ‘drive shaft‘ that creates the essen­tial move­ment in a story. Once you have found these, as Sorkin describes it, you have a ‘clothesline’ on which to hang your ideas

Inten­tion‘ usually describes the goal of the main char­acter and ‘obstacle‘ describes the forces opposing it.


Edward Bond offers this advice to actors to explore the unpre­dict­able aspects of the char­ac­ters they play. It’s advice that scriptwriters should also find useful in making char­ac­ters convin­cing and freeing them from stereo­typ­ical behaviour.

Don’t try to make your char­acter possible
Men do things that ought not to be possible
Don’t say ‘he’d never do this’
Men don’t behave in expected ways
Don’t make the char­acter one man
Unfor­tu­nately a man is many men
Don’t worry when an action isn’t consistent
Men aren’t consistent
Ask why they’re not consistent
Find out the unchar­ac­ter­istic in a char­acter
Find out why the char­acter stops being himself

From Edward Bond’s “The Activ­ists Papers”

You’ll find this quality of predict­ab­ility in much of what is served up on tele­vi­sion and radio as drama. Predict­able char­ac­ters move along predict­able paths towards largely predict­able goals as though they were on tram­lines or using step­ping stones to cross a river.

‘Step on a crack and break your mother’s back’ goes the old super­sti­tion that chil­dren repeat to each other. The anxious or conven­tional child obeys them. We, as writers, know where the paving stones are but we abso­lutely, at all times, should seek to step on the cracks. This is our task. This is where we discover the secret lives of our char­ac­ters and the secret life of our story.

And finally … Doggy Poo, The Movie

(This is a genuine film, a Korean anim­a­tion, demon­strating that no matter how unlikely the prot­ag­onist of a film, the engine of char­acter can still create an enga­ging story )

lnEFAkJG1Wzn51ZsDoggy Poo tells the story of a little poop left by the side of a rural village road. Doggy Poo wakes up to find himself all alone in a bewil­dering, hostile world, without a clue as to his reason for being or his purpose in life. All he knows is that he is a doggy poo, which is, as he is help­fully informed by a garrulous lump of mud, “the worst kind there is!”

Poor Doggy Poo. Not only must he live with the shame of being a mere doo-doo surrounded by the wonders of nature, but everyone he encoun­ters, from the mud lump to a snooty hen, has a crucial role to play in the natural order, while Doggy Poo is so useless that birds won’t even deign to eat him. Unable to move from the side of the road, all Doggy Poo can do is watch the world go by and ponder the empti­ness of his existence.

At night, he gazes up at the night sky and marvels at the stars, dreaming of someday becoming beau­tiful like them. A fallen leaf drifts briefly into his life and tells Doggy Poo of the inev­it­ab­ility and capri­cious nature of death. As the seasons pass, Doggy Poo despairs of finding any way of being useful to the world before he dies, but when a dandelion sprout emerges beside him, his dream may indeed come true.


Case studies:

The Train – for an illus­tra­tion of prot­ag­onist versus antagonist.

The Pawn­broker – for an example of char­acter under pressure.

The Bofors Gun – for an example of how an antag­onist can drive a story.

Scare­crow – another example of layered or ‘deep character’

Sophie’s Choice – a char­acter forced to make an impossible choice

America, America – another char­acter presented with a crucial decision

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