Home > Writing > How to Build Your Film: Character versus Concept

How to Build Your Film: Character versus Concept

One of the hardest things to do as a screenwriter, or any writer for that matter, is to remember where the emphasis of your story should be placed. Frequently you’ll come up with a great new concept, something you’ve never seen before. It’s Twilight (2008) meets Robocop (1987), and you know the audience will eat up this new mashing of genres.

What if Bella was torn between Edward and...

...this man?

Every writer is different, but for me the concept always comes first. It’s the world where everything takes place, and provides the backdrop for your story. The thing that becomes difficult is moving past the concept. You have a world, Twilight meets Robocop, and you have a story, a robot that is half man hunts vampires to protect humanity and unwittingly falls in love with one of those who he hunts. What you don’t actually have are characters.

Yes, you know the names of your characters at this point and what they need to do to move the story forward. What you need to do now is delve deeper and discover who your characters are, and what they want. No matter how great your concept, people won’t attach themselves to your film unless you give them characters they can care about.

Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in The Curse of the Black Pearl

Look at a film like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). When the film was initially released, it was the first mainstream pirate movie in a very long time. Fans of the genre flocked to theatres to take it in, but mainstream audiences weren’t enthralled with the concept of pirates on the big screen. What did enthrall audiences was the portrayal of the characters. Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swan, Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, and Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Excuse me, that’s Captain Jack Sparrow. These were deep and layered characters, each the hero of their own film, and each vividly portrayed on film. To support our main cast, an equally vivid cast of supporting characters was created, ensuring our attention through the course of the film.

While Jack Sparrow steals the show, it's characters like Barbossa and Elizabeth Swann that give depth to the film.

These characters helped make Black Pearl the massive success that it was, but what of a film with underdeveloped characters? That very issue can take a surefire hit and turn it into a flop. A film like Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) demonstrates this.

Poster for Highlander II: The Quickening

Taking over from the original cult classic Highlander (1986), The Quickening almost immediately destroys the mythic and characters that were set up in the first film. Gone is the tortured soul of Connor MacLeod, as it turns out he’s actually an alien. This bizarre recharacterization not only loses sympathy from the audience, but actively destroys the characterization from the previous film, leaving even fans of the series without a straw to grasp at.

Connor MacLeod's carefully crafted story is turned on its head in the Highlander sequel.

But how do you give depth to your characters? Once I’ve determined my concept and story, I sit down and write character bios for everyone in the film. This lets me delve into the character, focusing on them instead of the script as a whole. With the understandings I gain from that process, I can move on to actually crafting my screenplay.

But there is no right or wrong way to create a screenplay. How do you get to the root of who your character is? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Writing
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