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FROM A TO Z: External Goal and the Inner World of Your Character

Jim Mercurio shares an excerpt from his book, explaining how the ups and downs of the external goal will mirror the inner world of the character.

Jim Mercurio is a filmmaker, writer and teacher. The high-concept horror-thriller he directed, Last Girl, won best feature in the Dead on Arrival Bloodbath Film Festival (as #12) and is being released at the end of the month by BRINKvision. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. The Washington Post called his Making Hard Scrambled Movies (production tutorials) “a must for would-be filmmakers.” His workshops and instructional DVDs, including the first 40 in the Screenwriting Expo series, have inspired tens of thousands of screenwriters. One of the country’s top story analysts, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers. He is finishing up the first screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing.

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Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List represents Jim’s 20 years as a writer, teacher and filmmaker. The ten hours of the mile-a-minute instruction is, what one writer calls, the most information-dense product in the marketplace. The founder of Creative Screenwriting, Erik Bauer, says that Jim teaches the last 100 pages of the “Screenwriting Book” better than anyone else. His version of the first 100 pages of such fabled book is boiled down in his 50-page e-book, Beginning, Middle and End: A Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting, included in the bonus material of the DVD set, which is suitable for writers of all skill level. DVD set and bonus material are suitable for writers of all skill level.

Check out this excerpt from the e-book that introduces story and characters in a way that is intuitively graspable.


You have a sense of how story works. Hollywood storytelling is driven by an external goal and an underlying parallel psychological drive or need. The external successes, victories and failures will link to growth, regression and stasis on the inside. An imperfect protagonist will be ill-equipped to achieve the goal at the beginning of the story because of his current flaw. The ups and downs of the external story will mirror the inner world of the character.

Some movies work without clear-cut external goals for the characters to pursue. You will come across a lot of non-goal-oriented movies amid indie, art-house or foreign films. In these movies, the protagonist has an internal – often unconscious – goal that propels the story. These movies can, on the surface, appear as different as Lost in Translation (the protagonist has desire to connect or to find herself) or The Hurt Locker (the protagonist constantly invites danger to feel alive).

Shutter Island plays some games with the audience. It pretends to be goal-oriented (aimed at solving the crime) and then reveals that it is all about the protagonist’s inner drive to fix the unfixable (as he desperately embraces any defense mechanism – rationalization, denial, blaming, fantasizing – to distance himself from the unbearably painful reality).

Hollywood films – especially genre movies – emphasize goals. An average audience member goes to a crime movie wondering how the protagonist will solve the crime, an action movie to see the two leads engage in combat and a horror film to see the young woman face a monster and destroy it. A typical moviegoer does not pay to see how the protagonist can overcome the inappropriate guilt from “that thing” in his past. Right?


And no.

Ask a friend who hates indies and dramas, an unabashed lover of big and fun Hollywood movies, what her favorite movie is. No one picks that B-movie from the 80s with those okay TV actors, do they? In fact, let us look at some of the top 30 films from the Internet Movie Database list of the most popular titles of all time.

  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Godfather (I and II)
  • The Dark Knight
  • Fight Club
  • Goodfellas
  • Star Wars
  • Forrest Gump
  • Se7en
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Casablanca
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Léon: The Professional

Mystery, thrillers, action, mafia drama, serial killer drama, romance. These movies are from a wide range of genres. But you know what they all have in common? Amazing characters.

This DVD set has the word Complete in the title. Its goal is not to help you write little personal dramas that will only appeal to the smallest of audiences.

Nor is it encouraging thrilling rollercoaster rides with little attention to characters’ inner life. We want you to extract the best that each of these opposite tendencies have to offer and pour in into everything you write.

You might have a vague idea of what a great character is. He may be clever and good at pursuing the outer goal in the story. However, he will also be conflicted on an emotional and psychological level. In every single movie from the above list, the main character (besides the imaginary Tyler Durden in Fight Club) is deeply conflicted.

You have to show what is going on inside your characters head. You have to clarify their exact flaw without resorting to a boring speech and all-out exposition. Make sure that your protagonist learns what is wrong with him and has a few choices of how to fix it. You have to make sure your protagonist cannot back out.

But how do you make the conflict clear? How do you spur on inner growth? How will the audience ever know what the character’s flaw is without a clear-cut explanation? Effective storytelling might seem like a truly daunting task. Fortunately, you are not alone. You have help.

Your supporting characters.

Let’s look at all of our characters and the important roles the supporting characters provide.

Let us examine a few of the essential players that will be making appearance in your story. Notice how each one functions in relationship to the protagonist and how their roles help us to better understand the protagonist.



There seems to be a popular misconception that the word “protagonist” comes from the prefix “pro,” which means “for” or “in favor of” and the Greek “agon,” which means “battle.” Even though it is a great way to think of a protagonist – as the person who is fighting on the good side of a battle – that is not the actual etymology of the word. The first part of “protagonist” comes from “proto,” which means “first” (as in “prototype”). “Agonist” refers to a person embroiled in a struggle. “Protagonist” is thus the main character of a dramatic work, who is struggling to achieve something, to enact change.

The Hollywood storytelling paradigm burdens the protagonist with a flaw, which he must overcome, and orchestrates the story in such a way that the protagonist will not get that which he pursues unless he can grow and overcome his flaw. The protagonist should not possess the means to defeat the antagonist at the beginning of the story. Only through the conflict, insight from other characters and an eventual self-realization and growth, can the protagonist defeat the antagonist. A protagonist can only be as great as the forces of antagonism that he faces.


The antagonist aims to stop the protagonist from getting what he wants. A good antagonist must be most effective at exploiting the protagonist’s flaw. If the protagonist is greedy, the antagonist will tempt him with money. If she is selfish and vain, the antagonist will entice her with a promise of glory. The antagonist is not just “a bad guy.” He is the bad guy, seeking to bring about the protagonist’s downfall.

FROM A TO Z: External Goal and the Inner World of Your Character by Jim Mercurio | Script Magazine

A great antagonist will be unrelenting in his exploiting the protagonist’s weakness. In Star Wars, Darth Vader knows that Luke does not have command of the force. In Wall Street, Gordon Gekko manipulates Bud with ease because he understands Bud’s weakness and desire. These relationships illustrate a common principle in the protagonist-antagonist relationship. The antagonist can often be regarded as an evolved version of the protagonist had the latter gone to the dark side.


A foil character stands in distinct contrast to the protagonist (or another character) to reveal and clarify an important aspect of him or her. The foil will face a dilemma similar to the one faced by the protagonist, but will make a different choice.

So, if your film is a tragedy about a character whose greed destroys him, a foil character may choose love over greed in order to illuminate the path that the protagonist refused to take, and underscore the repercussions.

Vice versa, when the protagonist does achieve his goal, his success is thrown into sharp relief by the failure of a foil. An antagonist is the ultimate foil, but there will also be those characters who contrast with the protagonist in a less radical and confrontational way.

In Sideways, Jack is a foil character to Miles. Jack has a genuine connection with Stephanie and her daughter. With her, he can be himself. However, instead of risking change and uncertainty that would accompany getting into a relationship with Stephanie, he opts to return to Los Angeles and marry Christine, just as planned.

Miles’ contrasting action is subtle and left open-ended in the film: he knocks on Maya’s door, and the screen cuts to black before we find out if she answers. In contrast to Jack’s safe and cowardly modus operandi, Miles ventures out of his comfort zone, takes a gamble and renders himself vulnerable to be with the woman he loves. Whether or not he is going forward, one thing is certain: he is not regressing. At the worst, he is going sideways.


A confidante is a character in whom the protagonist confides. In romantic comedies, it is usually the best friend. The confidante is a vehicle through which the protagonist conveys his innermost secrets, thoughts and sentiments to the audience in an organic unobtrusive way. Tonto is a confidant to the Lone Ranger. His presence is essential to the viewer’s understanding of the masked hero. In Cast Away, the character is alone on the island, but the writers thought that a confidante was essential, so they delegated this role to an inanimate object – Wilson, the soccer ball. Since the protagonist shares with the confidante how he thinks and feels, the latter is perfectly positioned to illuminate the protagonist’s flaw and point out his failings when the time comes. We will see how Alfred in the Dark Knight trilogy begins as a foil and confidante and eventually turns into a mentor.


Often, two characters will represent the exact opposites of one another. Taken to the extreme, this is the classic “evil twin” scenario. In stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, splitting a whole person into two vying polarities can be a powerful thematic tool. In Star Trek, Bones and Spock are doubles: one is all emotion, the other is quite devoid of it.

Another creative way of employing the notion of doppelganger is to have a character travel through time metaphorically. If a 20-year-old alcoholic meets a 60-year-old homeless wino, he is meeting a possible future incarnation of himself. In Looper, a character meets an actual future incarnation of himself, who becomes his antagonist.

Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire is entirely centered on the concept of a double, where the beguiling siren shape-shifts between two visages (as played by two different actresses).

A shadow is a physical manifestation of the hidden part of a character. For instance, the Joker is the chaos that the Dark Knight suppresses and hides.


For the rest of this section and e-book, order Jim Mercurio’s Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-list today. You can sign up for his free monthly newsletter Craft & Career at his site: