Creating Powerful Characters

By Ruth Atkinson, Story Editor & Script Consultant

Back in the day, I used to date the same guy over and over. You know the type. Artistic, a little troubled, preferably riding a Harley. Hard to believe, I know, but these relationships rarely worked out. Then one day, just as I was delving into the Ben & Jerry’s I’d been hooked on since my last breakup, I had a moment. One of those total ah-ha moments where I realized why I kept going out with the same type of guy. The issues in my past that led me to that particular kind of guy I’ll save for my journal but suffice to say once I’d had that epiphany I never turned back.

This kind of life changing moment of awareness is exactly what your protagonist needs to have. It’s the cornerstone of their arc and is what makes for a powerful character. Gravity, Saving Mr. Banks, King’s Speech, Up, Wedding Crashers among others all have a very clear moment where the protagonist sees the root of their flaw and comes face to face with why they do what they do. This kind of epiphany makes for a very satisfying story and in many ways is the sole reason we go to see movies. Films are about transformation, we want to see the main character grow and learn over the course of the story. Giving your protagonist a moment where they reconcile their past makes the change they undergo feel meaningful.

Many scripts I read have the protagonist change but it isn’t rooted to anything specific and feels quite arbitrary. Though the character ends up having an arc, in that they undergo some kind of shift, ultimately it’s not emotionally satisfying. So how can we plot the protagonist’s arc in a way that leads to a transformation that feels emotionally satisfying on all levels?

gravity-sandra-bullock-636-370One way to do this is to give your protagonist a clear flaw they are unaware of at the outset but become aware of by the end of the story. In Gravity, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is haunted by the loss of her daughter and has chosen a life of isolation in order to avoid dealing with the pain. Lost in space, she attempts to end her life but is visited by a vision of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who helps her to see that life is worth living. This is a powerful moment where she reconciles the tragedy that led her to shut down emotionally, and in this, is able to find the hope she needs to survive. In Saving Mr. Banks, P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is somewhat bitter and emotionally aloof. As she works with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, she slowly gets in touch with the deeper themes of her books and ultimately her life. Disney helps her to see her tumultuous relationship with her father, an alcoholic, is at the root of her reticence to turn Mary Poppins into a film. Once Travers recognizes this, she’s able to release the pain of her past and agrees to move forward with production.

We also see this this kind of epiphany in The King’s Speech when Albert (Colin Firth), assisted by Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), comes to terms with the root of his stammer and reconciles the damaging effects of his relationship with his father. This comes to a head in a wonderful moment during the climax where Albert shouts at the top of his lungs, “I have a voice!” This kind of epiphany is also in Up when curmudgeonly Carl (Ed Asner) sees the note Ellie left for him in their scrapbook, thanking him for their adventure and telling him to go have a new one. This helps him to reconcile the loss of his beloved wife and embrace his friendship with Russell (Jordan Nagai). We even see this in comedies like Wedding Crashers. Towards the end of the film John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) pays a visit to Chazz (Will Farrell) and realizes if he continues down the path he’s heading, he’ll soon be crashing funerals instead of weddings. This is enough to get him to see the error of his ways giving him a powerful transformation.

Giving your protagonist a moment of awareness where they finally see the root of their flaw and in doing so are able to overcome it makes for a very satisfying story. Without this realization their transformation can feel arbitrary and unearned. As for me, it’s unlikely I would have stopped dating the same kind of guy over and over if I hadn’t had my ah-ha moment. Ultimately we have to get to the very core of our flaws in order to understand them, reconcile them and move on. As you are crafting your protagonist’s arc, look at their flaw and try to give them a moment where they come face to face with it, see it in a new light and overcome it. This will ensure your protagonist has a meaningful transformation that resonates with the audience well after they’ve left the theater.

ruth atkinsonRuth Atkinson is a Los Angeles-based story editor and script consultant with over 20 years of experience in the film/television business. Ruth has story edited and consulted on many films that have won awards and been distributed internationally including Jonas Chernick’s My Awkward Sexual Adventure, multi-award winning short film Lil Tokyo Reporter with Chris Tashima, The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner celebrated indie The People I’ve Slept With, Genie-nominated Who Loves the Sun starring Molly Parker and Adam Scott, and the New Zealand hit Predicament with Jemaine Clement.

Ruth is also a story analyst for the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Screenwriting and Directing Lab and Screen Queensland. In addition she is a screenwriting instructor and story editor for Project Involve, Film Independent’s (FIND) signature diversity program where she helps develop short film scripts which are produced and showcased at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Many have gone on to play at festivals across the country. Ruth has given seminars at The Great American Pitchfest, Screenwriters World Conference West, The Writer’s Store, On the Page Podcast and at the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. She is available for story editing, script consulting and screenwriting workshops and can be reached at www.ruthatkinson.com.

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