One of the biggest challenges in screenwriting is revealing "character" to the audience. As most of you already know, portraying character smartly goes a long way toward the audience identifying with and/or understanding a particular character in the story.
It’s much easier in a novel. The narrator can simply tell the reader all about the character, including their deepest, darkest secrets. A screenwriter has no such capability, short of the use of voice-over (and one should avoid using voice-over if it’s only employed to reveal character). I’ll talk about voice-over in a future post, but suffice it to say that it’s always best when it has a primary purpose other than revealing character.
Fortunately for the screenwriter, there are a number of ways to reveal character in a screenplay, dialogue being the most popular choice for most beginning screenwriters (more on that in a later post).
However, without question, the best and truest revealer of character is “action.” You have no doubt heard some form of the advice that “action reveals character” or “character is action.” All true. But for me, that advice simply doesn’t go deep enough.
Here’s why: it is not just any action that reveals character. For instance, if I hold the door open to let a little old lady into the Dunkin Donuts before me, does that mean I’m a great guy? Hell, Adolph Hitler probably held the door open for a little old lady at some point. Case closed.
No, we have to go back a few steps to trace the action to see of it is character revealing. To me, an action cannot be character revealing unless it is put in motion by conflict. There must be some form of conflict facing the character before any action can reveal character. Let me give you the evolution to help you see how this unfolds.
What does "conflict" always create? Pressure.
What does "pressure" almost always lead to? Choice.
What does "choice" almost always force to happen? Action!
It’s that resultant action that almost always reveals character.
To me, instead of “action reveals character” think of it this way: “choice under pressure reveals character.” It has to do so because choice almost always forces an action. For those who love mnemonic devices, think CUP.
Back to the Dunkin Donuts example. If I approach the store with no conflict or pressure spurring me on, my holding the door for someone else tells you nothing more than perhaps I’m in no hurry that day and maybe in a good mood. It's an action forced by no more than my desire to enter and get a cup of coffee and not caring that I might be behind one more customer.
On the other hand, if there’s a pack of zombies storming the parking lot and the Dunkin Donuts is the nearest form of shelter, that’s a form of conflict. And if there are a number of non-zombies in that lot who want to avoid getting ripped apart and become zombified, then it’s certainly creates pressure. And as I get closer to the door and safety, it forces me to make a choice: cut off someone else who wants to live or let them in the store first. The action of allowing them to enter before me reveals something about my character, does it not?
For a better (and more serious example) than mine, go back and watch the third act of Casablanca and see how the main character Rick (Humphrey Bogart) “acts” when he is under pressure.
For instance, when Captain Renault enters Rick's Place thinking he is going to arrest Victor Lazlo with the stolen exit visas and Rick turns the gun on him instead of abiding by their earlier "agreement," Rick is all but ending his relationship with perhaps his only friend in Casablanca in order to arrange for Lazlo's departure from the Nazi-controlled city.
When Major Strasser arrives at the airport after Ilsa and Victor board the plane, Rick points the gun at Strasser, all but assuring that he can no longer remain in Casablanca.
And finally, when Rick shoots Strasser before he can notify the tower to stop the plane, he assures that the love of his life can safely depart with Lazlo, the husband Rick wishes he could have been. Oh yeah, and he makes himself the most-wanted man in northern Africa.
Those actions reveal his true character and, in the process, make him one of the most heroic and sympathetic characters in film history.
As I said in the beginning, the screenwriter has a number of different ways to reveal “character.” But as your mother always told you: actions speak louder than words.
So if you really want to let your reader know about your character’s true “character," force them to "grab a CUP" and have them make a choice under pressure.
Drew Yanno helps you get your story on the page with his webinar
From Idea to Story to Screenplay