Is Every Screenplay Character a Hero?


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by Naomi in character, screenwriting

“Every villain is the hero of his own story.”

Screenwriters are often advised to think of their antagonists in this way, and that’s good advice. Really good. But it doesn’t go far enough.

If you apply this idea to every character in your screenplay, you’ll reap the rewards. You’ll avoid the small-but-not-insignificant (and pretty common) issue of dropped characters. You’ll also get deeper characters, and better scenes!

What’s not to like??

Now, I’m definitely NOT saying that every character in a screenplay should be the hero of that story. That would be confusing and make the screenplay tough to read.

But I am saying that you can think of every character as the hero of his own story, and in this screenplay, that story might intersect 2, 3, or more times. In those intersections, we’ll get a glimpse into that character’s life, where he or she is the hero. And if you take the time to give each character that thought and attention, you’ll get all those benefits.

What are they again?

You’ll avoid dropped characters and connect the plot dots

Because screenwriters are so focused on building that main A-story, a vanishing supporting character can be an easy thing to overlook. It’s like when you’re watching a magician’s card trick and meanwhile your watch disappears.

Just this week, three writers I consulted with – all with really good, strong stories – nonetheless had a Case of the Disappearing Character. I don’t say that to call them out. I only bring it up to illustrate just how often it happens.

Thankfully, once you realize what’s happened, this is a pretty straightforward issue to address. Track where each character appears in the script, and make sure they show up enough.

What’s “enough”? That’s up to you. But the guideline I’d offer is this: you never want the audience to ask, “Wait – who’s that?” when a character reappears. So if a character is going to have an important function in Act 3, make sure we see them at least once or twice in Act 2 so we don’t forget who they are.

You’ll think about their actions, attitudes, and agendas

When you put yourself into a character’s shoes and think about the story events from their point of view, it forces you to consider what they’re doing and thinking along the way.

You’ll notice whether their actions feel consistent and line up with their attitudes, whether we understand what agendas are behind those actions, and just what is revealed about the character as a result.

All of that adds up to deeper characters and better roles.

You’ll find additional conflicts

As we know well, conflict is the lifeblood of your screenplay. And because you’ve taken the time to think about those supporting characters and really flesh them out, you will find additional conflicts where their actions, attitudes, and agendas butt up against other characters’. These conflicts can add interesting layers to the story and make individual scenes much more dynamic.

The more you show characters engaged in conflict over what’s important and meaningful to them, the more drama you pack into your script. And characters feel even more fully developed. Win-win.

Treat every character like the hero of their own story

Supporting characters often get short shrift, and that’s one of the things that really separates an okay screenplay from a great one.

You want your characters to feel fully realized, even if they’re only in a few scenes. Every person interacts with the world as if they are the hero of the story, so taking the time to find that point of view for each character will help them feel real on the page – even if it’s in brief glimpses.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it: Take one of your supporting characters and map out where they show up in the screenplay. With that in hand, think through these questions:

  • Do they ever inexplicably drop out?
  • What do we learn about them in each scene?
  • Do we know what they want, what they think or feel about what they’re experiencing?
  • Do we have a sense of what the story might be if we were to see their movie?

Now that you’ve identified the gaps, you get to fill them in – making your characters and your screenplay that much richer.


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