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Featuring Femi Kayode, Hannah Berry, Carys Davies, Taylor Beidler and Chris Beckett
Know your main character
Funny how fundamental this is, and yet so easily missed. Knowing who the main character is in a story grounds the reader/audience. Think of it as an anchor in a sea of worlds, stories, and themes. When we know who the main character is in a story, we know who to follow and root for. It is the north star of writing a script that we must know what the main character wants, and simultaneously what is stopping s/he/they from getting it.
Just as your main character can be one person, it can also be a collective, bound by one singular goal. Think Saving Private Ryan. The same goes for who or what is stopping the main character from getting what s/he/they want. That obstacle can be anyone or anything: the weather (common in disaster stories), a person, or sometimes, it can be from within the main character, forcing him/her/them to overcome an internal conflict before attaining the goal.
Characters change when they realize what they want is not want what they need. This is the primal reason why stories enthral: to experience the journey of a hero/heroine from point A to B, rooting for them as they battle seemingly insurmountable challenges, almost giving up, then getting up to go after the prize, only to discover that what was driving their desire, is actually a deeper and more emotional need.
Think of it this way: Wall Street lawyer fights to get the top job, by any means necessary, but in the process, jeopardizes their family relationship. On getting the top job, our lawyer realizes that their desire for success is driven by the more primal need for security. They then resolve to forsake the top job for a more meaningful and loving connection with their family. Their willingness to make that sacrifice is rewarded by said family encouraging them not to give up their job. The arc is complete and the audience does not feel cheated. This is the scriptwriter’s most important task: orchestrating, through the unfolding of plot, the main character’s journey from chasing their goal to realising their deeper, more emotional need.
Show, don’t tell
Action reveals character. The camera cannot shoot intention just as the audience can’t see the inner workings of a character’s mind. Before you write a single word of dialogue, consider: how can I show this through action? Remember the old adage; ‘do as I do, not as I say’? What this means for scriptwriters is simple: people’s words are not always true reflections of their intentions. Our actions, on the other hand, are much more revealing and makes for a much more memorable experience for the audience. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Even in a medium like radio, the aim must always be to paint a picture in the theatre of the audience’s mind.
The temptation to make your main character stronger than the force against them is the surefire way of writing a weak script. Resist it.
Create a fair fight
Conflict is determined by the extent of danger when confronting a desire. For us to root for the main character, we must believe there are overwhelming odds against them. The temptation to make your main character stronger than the force against them is the surefire way of writing a weak script. Resist it. The stronger the opposition, the more exciting, bloodier even, the fight. The fiercer the fight, the greater our joy when the main character wins. The tougher the challenge, the deeper the main character will have to dig in to find the strength to overcome it. No one roots for a weak hero/heroine, just as no one respects a winner who cheats, takes the easy way out or beats a clearly, weaker opponent. It is a cardinal sin to break this rule.
Write in Love
Every character deserves love. When we appreciate where characters are coming from, and what drives them (motivation), it is so much easier to care for them. There is a tendency to place a lot of love on your main character (irrespective of their flaws) while painting an unsympathetic picture of the villain/opposition. This must be avoided at all costs as it is guaranteed to create flat, one-dimensional characters, setting the stage for an ‘unfair’ fight that makes your story weaker and ultimately, less interesting.
Consider Hannibal Lecter. How did the writer create one of the most beloved villains in cinema? I think it’s because the writer understood the character, they could write with empathy. Point is: if you don’t write your script in love by caring for the characters (good and bad), the audience will know, and because it is clear you don’t care, they won’t either. You don’t want that. Ever.
Bonus tip: With great power, comes great responsibility.
If it’s not on paper, no one can tell if it’s any good or not. And in the case of a script, if you don’t write it; it can’t be shot, staged or read. This might seem an obvious point, but in reality, it is one of the most important motivations for a scriptwriter to get the job done. If it’s in your head, it’s not a script. And if it’s not a script, a whole army of cast and crew have nothing to work with. Herein lies the power of the scriptwriter: your work creates work.
Femi Kayode is an award-winning writer for both stage and screen. He has built an impressive resume on prime-time television by creating, writing and developing several award-winning TV dramas. His exceptional and wide-ranging talent has seen him write for streaming giant Amazon-video, as well as winning the prestigious Little, Brown award for his debut novel Lightseekers. His experience makes him the perfect tutor to help navigate the complexities and opportunities of the contemporary scriptwriting scene. He is a graduate of UEA and a former Fellow in Film at the University of Southern California. He is currently teaching NCW’s online 12-week course, ‘An Introduction to Scriptwriting’.
The Early Career Writers’ Resource Packs are supported by Arts Council England.