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Creating Original Characters, Themes, and Visual Metaphors for Your Digital Short Film

Sherri Sheridan provides helpful tips to developers of digital short films on the creation of interesting characters, themes, and visual metaphors through the development of a sample short film about a bigfoot named Ezzie.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

"I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known."
—Walt Disney

Character, plot, and theme are the building blocks of a great short film. This chapter focuses on creating original characters, developing themes, and ways to create a unique visual, metaphorical, and symbolic language in your film.

Creating Powerfully Original Characters

The more you know about your characters, the easier it is to write your script. Assigning original sets of goals, traits, history, and other qualities creates characters with real emotional depth and personality. In this section, you will develop the main characters you chose for your final script idea in Chapter 1, "Generating Ideas for Digital Short Films."

Creating Active Characters

The strongest protagonists are usually active. Make sure your characters are not on a "magic carpet ride" type of journey through the story, just being carried along by a series of uncanny coincidences. When planning stories, keep in mind the three states of being for characters:

  1. Passive. Lump: no goals, no plans, no energy to do anything. Part of the scenery, like colorful statues in a garden.

  2. Reactive. Goal, plan, or pursuit; two out of three: Needs a little boost to get going, but heading toward goal.

  3. Active. Goal, plan, and pursuit; fully engaged in quest to achieve goal.

Have your characters make active choices that make events happen. Force your characters to deal and learn from these choices as the story develops.

Watch your favorite films and see whether you can tell which state each character is in, in each scene, and how this state affects the conflict and audience interest in the story. You will discover that the active character state is much more engaging to watch.

Figure 2.1Figure 2.1 This reclining Bigfoot is a passive character with no plans, goals, or energy. He just lies around all day. Notice how this character is not as interesting to watch as the one with a plan, goal, and motivation to make things happen.

Defining Characters

Short films do not have time to develop complex plots, so they often depend more on character. Plot is character personified in a sense. Characters are defined through their choices, actions, and reactions. Recognize that every character creates his or her own situations (plot) from the externalizations of his or her inner world (character).

What a character does is more important than what a character says.

Characters need action and behavior to show us who they are. Guidance is good to have bestowed upon your characters, but do not have them become puppets of outside forces. They must act for themselves to show us who they are and what they think is important enough to fight for against heavy opposition.

You can define character in three ways, listed here in order of importance:

  1. Action. Observing how they react to situations by what they do.

  2. Dialogue. Listening to what they say.

  3. Third-party dialogue. Listening to what other characters say about them. You could establish a whole character before he even walks on the screen by what another character says about him. The power of third-person dialogue is that you tend to believe it more if someone else says something about someone, rather than if the actual character claims to be something. How would your character's parents describe him or her? What description would a best friend, lover, or worst enemy provide?

Figure 2.2Figure 2.2 Big Granny tells her pet bobcat things about Ezzie when she's not around or is out of hearing range. How can you use third-party dialogue to help establish characters in interesting ways? What ways could you use digital tools to have characters talk to animated objects or animals, such as a conversing bobcat that gives advice?

Writing Exercise 2.1

Write a few pages about one character going from a passive to a reactive to an active state of being. Or you could write about three characters in one situation, where one character is passive, one reactive, and one active.

Project 2.1

List Three Active Choices. Create three active choices your main characters could make in your short film to accomplish the plot goal you chose in Chapter 1.

Project 2.2

Defining Characters. List at least one idea for using action, dialogue, and third-party dialogue to establish characters in your film idea.

Movie Note

In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen's character describes the men in his outfit with a voice over (VO) as the camera pans around the gunboat. He starts off by saying the soldiers are a "group of rock and rollers with one foot in the grave," foreshadowing upcoming events. One edgy character is described as "being wrapped too tight for Vietnam. Probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans." We learn about Martin's character by the way he describes other people in this brilliant, all-around character-defining monologue. How could you use a similar technique to quickly establish characters in your short film?

Movie Note

The animated short film Transit tells the story of Emmy, an archetypal femme fatal, seducing Oscar the butcher, who ends up killing her oil-baron husband. The story happens in 11 minutes, is told backwards in cities all over the world through disappearing travel stickers on a suitcase, and has no dialogue. We understand everything we need to know about these characters by what they do in each scene, how they react to each other, and the choices they make. Pay attention to this "show, don't tell" concept when planning your visual stories.

What Does Your Character Want and Need?

Your protagonist should have two basic goals related to both plot (want) and theme (need).

Want is the worldly plot goal to save the princess, rob the bank, save the world, find the treasure, or win the race.

Need is usually the unconscious inner motivation that compels the character to act in irrational ways.

As characters attempt to get what they want, they often get what they need. Need may oppose want. Needs never change in a film, whereas wants often do. A character may want to die of a broken heart, when what he or she really needs is love. Need is something the audience often starts to see before the protagonist does, watching as the character learns throughout the story. Study yourself and other people. See what makes people tick underneath what they want and need to create believable characters.

    Character want = Plot goal

    Character need = Theme goal

    Motivations = Why they made these decisions based on want/need

Writing Exercise 2.2

Write a few pages where you define a character or group of characters using action, dialouge, and third-party dialouge.


Get to Know Yourself. You need to really know yourself to build good characters and stories. The more you understand yourself, the better you understand other people. We all share similar experiences of desires, suffering, dreams, hopes, and the struggle to find value in our daily lives. Carry a notebook around with you to write down what you observe in regards to what is important to yourself and other people. Build your characters out of parts of people you know and assemble them into layered dimensions of contradictions.


List Three of Your Own Personal Plot and Theme Goals. Make a list of three personal goals for both outer (worldly) wants and inner (soul) needs. These will often surface in your characters in some way.

Figure 2.3Figure 2.3 My main Bigfoot character Ezzie's plot goal is to pass her vision quest, so she can stay with her tribe and not be banished to wander alone in the forest forever. What she needs to learn is to trust her intuition in order to pass her vision quest and claim her rightful spot in the Bigfoot tribe as the daughter of a long line of powerful shamans and warriors. Ezzie is afraid of her Bigfoot psychic powers at the beginning of the story and learns to use them better during the vision quest. In this shot at the beginning of the story, she trips on a log in the forest on her way to steal the chocolate that gets her into so much trouble. A voice in the wind tells her to "go back," but the smell of the chocolate is stronger and she ignores her intuition. Later in the story, a similar voice will be heard, and she will listen to it this time to show how she is learning to trust her intuition.

Creating Theme Goals for Your Characters

Take the theme you chose in Chapter 1 and turn it into a theme goal for the protagonist. Theme goals tend to be underlying unconscious needs characters have to develop, ones that will usually help them with their plot goals and character growth. If your theme is that greed leads to corruption, as in the movie Wall Street, your protagonist may struggle between greed and corruption while going through the story. Maybe your characters struggle to determine who they want to be in a world ruled by this theme. Work with the plot goal you picked in Chapter 1 for the following exercise.

  • Theme of film. Controlling idea, moral message, underlying essence, or deeper meaning of film.

  • Character theme goal. How a character needs to grow to accomplish plot goal or show the film theme.

In the film Wall Street, Charlie Sheen's character is the protagonist, representing the theme of how greed leads to corruption. We watch as he struggles throughout the film to find a balance between the two extremes and still become a success. Michael Douglas's character is the antagonist, representing the anti-theme personifying intense greed and corruption. Charlie Sheen's character has the following goals he attempts to achieve within the overall film theme parameters:

  • Theme of film. Greed leads to corruption.

  • Protagonist plot goal. To become a successful businessman.

  • Protagonist theme goal. Needs to redefine who he wants to be and his place in the business world amid greed and corruption.

Writing Exercise 2.3

Write a few pages where you show a character struggling to achieve both a plot and a theme goal.

Project 2.3

What Does Your Protagonist Want and Need? List three ideas for each goal type. Pick your best ones to develop.

Theme Goal Brainstorming Chart

To let go of past

To take responsibility for actions

To find happiness

To find inner peace

To let go of being a victim

To believe in something worthwhile

To define new version of self

To find a balance between extremes

To let go of self-destructive behaviors

To fit into new world

To find love

To change inner beliefs

To come of age

To see perfection in themselves and others

To let go of any fears and trust that everything is happening perfectly

To learn something

To change way of being in the world

To be honest with themselves or others

To resolve conflicting inner beliefs

To learn compassion for others

To see the world in a new way

To find one's own truth

To make peace with the past

To overcome past trauma

To gain self-confidence

To redefine self in world

To reach a new level of understanding

To overcome a fear of something

To find purpose in life

To realize something that changes perspective on life

To become a leader

To create life intentionally instead of being carried along by circumstances

To trust inner guidance rather than logic

Theme Goals Determine the Climax

Another way to think of theme goals, or character need, is to ask yourself what the character is learning, or how the character is growing during their journey through the film. Some characters are always in transition until the final fade out if they grow a great deal. The more a character grows inside, the more external challenges the character can handle. The bigger the external goals, the more internal change needs to occur.

The theme goal reaches its climax with the film's plot goal climax and is usually the reason the ending goes positively or negatively.

In the short film Last Supper, the protagonist thinks he has won the lottery at the climax, not knowing it's a trick played on him for fun by his wife. Believing he is suddenly rich, he now feels comfortable showing a more honest side of himself, by telling her he is leaving her and has been sleeping with her sister for the past eight months. He places the keys to his Jaguar, credit cards, and house keys on the table to leave them for his wife, which symbolic-ally states theme, too. The theme is how money changes relationships, and this decides the man's reaction at the climax. If money didn't matter in relationships for this film, he would have reacted differently to thinking he had won the lottery.

Figure 2.4Figure 2.4 Ezzie falls into a deep pit of quicksand during the climax while on her Shamanic journey and starts to drown. Her initial urge is to fight her way to the surface, but then she hears her little voice that tells her to levitate out. If she ignores the voice of her intuition, she will die and not accomplish either plot or theme goal.

Project 2.4

Three Theme-Triggered Climaxes. How could your main character's theme goal decide the climax of your film? List the theme of your film, plot goal of main character, theme goal of main character, and three possible ways these ideas could all connect at the end.

Project 2.5

Mutually Exclusive Goals. Create an ending that makes the plot and theme goals mutually exclusive. Your protagonist cannot have both of them and must choose between the world (worldly plot goal) and his or her soul (inner theme goal need).

Creating Mutually Exclusive Plot and Theme Goals

Sometimes you may want to make the plot and theme goals mutually exclusive. In The Maltese Falcon, the main character wants to find the person who killed his partner and needs the perfect woman to love. When he finds out at the end that the perfect woman he now loves killed his partner, he has to decide which goal is more important to achieve. How could you create this conflict with your character to craft a great ending where the character must decide between his or her soul and the world?

Often, achieving plot goals means winning in the world. Theme goals usually involve winning on a soul level.

Figure 2.5Figure 2.5 Ezzie has one quick chance to place her palm prints and carve her initials and sacred journey symbol on a special wall to prove her vision quest is complete at the end. Her intuition tells her to check out a sound coming from a deep hole, creating a situation with mutually exclusive plot and theme goals. As she falls into another series of caves, she finds a deeper hidden chamber where the heads of the tribe carve their symbols if they hear the special call. This elevates her standing in the tribe when she returns with a talisman from this special chamber.

Creating Character Identification

When an audience relates strongly to a film, they are identifying some aspect of themselves with the characters they see on the screen. Include as many of the following character identification techniques as possible when creating each of your characters. Don't use all of these techniques on just one character; it would be too confusing. Try to incorporate identification ideas that already fit your characters in some visual way. The trick is not to make these too obvious or sappy. Make sure they are original and artfully presented in a very subtle way. Several of the following character identification techniques are taken from Michael Hauge's wonderful book Writing Screenplays That Sell. Add to this list as you see qualities in characters that make you want to watch them and feel connected with them in some way.

  1. Admirable. The character is really good at something we can admire, such as being an expert in their field, brilliant, wise, witty, beautiful, very talented, resourceful, or respected.

  2. Similar opinions/desires. You relate to the character's view of the world and what the character wants.

  3. Flaws. Imperfections—physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, or personality. Give your characters lots of neurotic tendencies to make them more interesting. Characters who are in conflict with themselves are interesting to watch. Try to make flaws symbolic to theme. In Finding Nemo, the theme is to not give up and "to keep swimming." Nemo has one fin that is smaller than the other, and his father is afraid of everything out in the ocean. Dorie cannot remember anything for very long, which is a very funny flaw that works well to keep reviewing the same story information. Add to these lists as you see films.

  4. Writing Exercise 2.4

    Write a few pages where you show how a character's theme goal decides the outcome of their plot goal.

    Movie Note

    In Life Lessons, Lionel the painter says he wants Paulette to stay, but what he really needs to inspire his painting is passionate turmoil in his relationships. He becomes both the protagonist and the antagonist as his own worst enemy, because his plot and theme goals are in such direct conflict. Lionel wins in the world with a successful art show at the end, although he loses another relationship on a soul level.

    Types of Flaws






    Missing limb

    Mood swings

    Religious/Spiritual zealot




    Cries easily

    Cult fanatic




    Emotionally devoid

    Evil tendencies

    Manic depressive


    Bad teeth

    Laughs at the wrong things

    Terrified of killing anything


    Self destructive


    Uncontrollable anger

    Believes the world is going to end soon

    Multiple personalities

    Mean spirited



    Believes the world is going to end soon

    Going crazy


    One leg shorter than the other

    Afraid of everything

    Extremely superstitious

    Memory problems




    Always trying to convert other characters







    No Integrity

  5. Superhero qualities. The character can do something amazing such as breathe under water and talk to fish (Aqua Man). Must balance all superhero qualities with equal vulnerabilities, such as what kryptonite does to Superman. What original visual superhero qualities could you create that are perfect for animation and digital effects?

  6. Visual appeal. Great actors have what is known as "screen presence," meaning that you cannot take your eyes off of them in the frame. When Elizabeth Taylor walks onto the screen, you watch her above all else. Visual appeal is often thought of as sexual appeal. Jack Nicholson may not be the most handsome man in the world, but he has great sex appeal. Animated characters need wonderfully original design, great personalities, and exaggerated movements to create strong visual appeal.

  7. Introduce the main character ASAP. Make it clear who the main character is, and introduce him or her right away.

  8. Sympathy. Your audience really feels where the character is at emotionally and empathizes. Your character is having a hard time, bad luck, or a bad day; is in pain; just lost everything; or is involved in an unjust situation.

  9. Place in jeopardy. First you get the audience to care about and identify with your characters, and then you make them suffer by placing the characters in emotional, physical, or spiritually dangerous situations. The audience loves to worry about characters if they relate to them.

  10. Familiar setting/situations. What types of places or situations can you put your characters in that are both universal and unique? A family dinner table, classroom, or job situation.

  11. Eyes of the audience. The character goes through the story and learns surprising things at the same time the audience does.

  12. Empowered. Active characters that make decisions to do something. Characters with no power to change their situations are hard to relate to, boring, and frustrating to watch.

  13. Underdogs. Characters in ordinary lives who are called on to do great things against all odds of success. Give your characters normal boring jobs or place them in situations where they are underdogs.

  14. Good sense of humor. The character is witty, funny, tells good jokes, is playful, does entertaining things, or is clever.

  15. Helps others. The character goes out of the way to assist other people or animals. Avoid cliché helping actions.

  16. Loves children/family/pets/self. Have your characters smile at kids, joke with old men in elevators, call their mothers, stop to pet dogs, and compliment themselves in the mirror.

  17. Artistic. The character creates artwork or appreciates art.

  18. On a mission or has a special calling. Show how your characters are completely inspired by some higher purpose, greater idea, or selfless mission. Maybe they want to accomplish something in your story for the good of others or to serve.

Figure 2.6Figure 2.6 Character Flaws Add Personality. This flawed Bigfoot is missing a leg and has scars, bad teeth, torn ears, strange religious emblems on his necklace, and a crazy look in his eyes. All of these imperfections make him much more realistic and interesting than a so-called perfect Bigfoot. How many character flaws can you incorporate visually into your characters?

Movie Note

In the 2D animated short The Last Day, the husband has a compulsive sawing problem when it comes to furniture. His wife likes to take her eyes out and shake them like dice in an irritating way. What new types of visual flaws can you give your character to enhance with animation or special effects that are metaphoric?

Superhero Qualities

Runs super fast

Can see through things

Can talk to beings on other stars for guidance

Ability to talk to plants

Shape shifter

Mind reader

Body parts turn into spaceship

Ability to sprout wings and fly

Can see 10 seconds into the future when looking into special stone

Has the ability to shift physical locations at will

A magical scorpion tail sprouts out of body and stings people

Ability to tunnel underground with head

Can move objects with mind

Has a magical lasso only they can use

Ability to make people do things by gently suggesting ideas

Project 2.6

Add Character Flaws. Create three flaws for each of your main characters. Try to connect their main flaws with their abilities to achieve goals.

Project 2.7

Character Identification. List 10 ideas to improve character identification for each main character in your film.

Figure 2.7Figure 2.7 This Bigfoot carves redwood stumps with chainsaws he steals from the lumberjacks. Showing his artistic side will help the audience identify more with the character. As you write your script, remember that these types of character identification techniques are good to show. This character could be carving a symbolic object out of a redwood tree while talking to another character who is playing with a beloved pet.


Watch Finding Nemo for Character Identification Techniques. Watch the first 30 minutes of this film and list as many of the previously discussed character identification techniques as you can. Notice how using these techniques helps you relate to the characters emotionally. You need to set up strong character identification in Act One, so this is a good place to study how other films do this in artful and original ways.

Writing Exercise 2.5

Write a few pages where you describe a day in the life of a character using as many of these character identification techniques as possible.

Creating a Character History

You will have a hard time creating believable characters without thinking about their personal history. Find original ways to slowly reveal important and unique information about their pasts as it relates to the story.

Writing Exercise 2.6

Write a few pages where you describe your main character based on their history. You could do it chronically, have a character telling their life story to someone, or have another character talking about someone else's life story.

Developing Psychological Profiles

Everything inside a character's head will affect how they see their world and how they act and react on screen. People identify with characters who have similar emotions, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs. True emotion is the real source of our connections to other people. Make sure that your characters have powerful desires and opinions to create compelling moments and events on the screen. Answer the following questions to get a sense of how your character thinks and feels about the world.

The emotional reactions of characters in a film are how we understand them visually.

  1. What is the general emotional mood of your characters? Are they broken up inside or fresh and innocent? Are they cynical or positive?

  2. How do your characters speak to themselves inside their own heads? Are they very critical and hard on themselves or do they think everything is wonderful and just better and better? Write three lines of inner dialogue to show general psychological character states, such as, "I never do anything right," "Nothing ever happens the way I want it to," or "I'm just not good enough." Or does the character think more along the lines of, "Oh great, another wonderful day!," "I can't wait to go to school," or "I just know something really good is going to happen."

  3. How do they interpret external experiences internally? Do they think everything is their fault or do they never take responsibility for their behaviors?

  4. Do they have any psychological problems or flaws, such as being neurotic, delusional, depressed, slightly nutty, forgetful, or obsessive? Do they suffer from uncontrollable outbursts of rage or overwhelming panic attack- type disorders?

  5. What is your character's biggest secret insecurity? Are they afraid they are not good enough, not beautiful enough, or not smart enough? What might they think is terribly wrong with them that they do not want anyone else to know?

  6. What strong opinions, attitudes, or beliefs does this character possess? Do they feel they have a clear purpose in their life or higher mission to accomplish? What are they willing to fight for under pressure?

  7. What is your character's biggest emotional scar or shameful past event that they repress or hide from themselves or others?

  8. What types of emotional weather did your character's family have when they were growing up? Was it a happy family or a stressed out one? How does this affect your character's mindset now?

  9. Are there any original ways you could show some of these psychological states on screen, using your digital tools to help the audience better understand your character's inner world? A character who has a very negative inner dialogue with a cheerful outer attitude could be shown to be in conflict by using a separate, softer soundtrack for the inner voice on top of the normal dialogue at key moments.

Figure 2.8Figure 2.8 My protagonist Ezzie is very dramatic emotionally and has big mood swings. Her biggest flaw is that she is overly optimistic about things and fails to see problems until it is too late. In this shot, she is at her lowest point in the cave, having a vision of her grandmother in the lines of the rocks, who reminds her of why she is on the vision quest. The two characters joke about how things are not going too well and use humor to help get her into a more positive mental state in order to continue.

Project 2.8

Character History. Answer the following questions for both your protagonist and antagonist:

  1. Naming your characters. How can you create original names for your characters that relate to their role in the story or the theme of the film, or that serve as metaphors for traits? You may want to refer to baby naming, family name, or other types of dictionaries to create symbolic first and last names. A cold-hearted snippy character named Sally Davis is not nearly as unique and descriptive as Nettle Frost. "Nettle" for the stinging plant and "Frost" for cold. Refer to the character traits later in this chapter to see what types of synonyms you may be able to use for names. What types of nicknames could you give your characters that relate to their history?

  2. Physical descriptions. Height, weight, hair color, wardrobe style, posture, eye color, scars, cultural background, imperfections, and general visual impression at first glance.

  3. Life experiences. Write one sentence each for three major events in your character's life that define who the character is and how the character sees the world. For instance: At 5 years old, the character stole a bicycle, got caught, and then decided he or she was bad because of what the stern policemen said. At 10, the character's parents divorced, the character's mother moved away to a strange place with the character, and the character never again felt a sense of "belonging." At 21, the character had a vision of their life purpose and remains focused on achieving this at all costs. Have these life-changing events define your character's attitude and feelings toward life.

  4. Free-time activities. Hobbies, skills, interests, collections, sports, travel, favorite band, and favorite thing to do on Sunday or day off.

  5. Figure 2.9Figure 2.9 This 14-year-old Bigfoot girl is named Ezmerelda Firerose, but most of her friends call her Ezzie. She comes from a long line of shamanic Bigfoot women who knew how to talk to plants and use them for healing. On the night she was born, there was a big fire where the wild roses grow near the Bigfoot clan cave, which is how she got her last name. She is 8 feet tall and weighs 267 pounds; she has sapphire blue eyes and bright red hair. One of her favorite things to do is spy on campers and steal their candy bars. She also likes to make sculptures out of junk she finds on the side of the road and natural objects such as rocks and bones. Her current most-used expression is "wicked," which she overheard an English anthropologist say while scouting for Bigfoots in the forests.

  6. Dialogue. How the character talks. What are the character's favorite words? What kinds of special words could you add to things the character says? "That's great!" is not as interesting or revealing as, "Oh goody goody gumdrops!" Watch any films similar in genre dialogue to the one you are creating to get fresh ideas.

  7. Sociology. Social status in film world, including education, money, friends, family background, neighborhood, city, and environment. Effect of outside world situation on characters both internally and externally. Suppose, for instance, that identical triplets were all separated at birth. One was reared with Eskimos, one in Beverly Hills, and one on the streets of Bombay. How would their social environments make them all different at age 21?

  8. Biggest heartache or disappointment. What was the biggest heartache or disappointment that your character has ever experienced? What possible fear did the character develop around this experience? Maybe if the character lost a best friend at a young age, they become afraid of getting attached to anyone else.

  9. Most prized possession. What is your character's most prized possession?

  10. Secret dreams. What does your character secretly dream about becoming or achieving? What does your character daydream about in his or her spare time? How does your character view their future?

  11. What is missing in the character's life? What one missing thing does your character think having would make his or her life perfect? What life situation is your character trying to change in your story?

  12. What relationships are most important to your character? Is your character really close to his or her mother but has never seen his or her father? Who is his or her best friend? Think about including archetypal relationships in your story, such as father/son, teacher/student, priest/man, God/man, husband/wife, or boss/employee. Make sure you build strong, contrasting characters for important relationships to help each other grow and keep the story interesting.

Figure 2.10Figure 2.10 Ezzie secretly dreams of jumping her motorcycle over the biggest cavern in the Bigfoot cave.

Project 2.9

Psychological Profiles. Answer the questions in this section to get a feel for how your characters think and feel about their lives.

Writing Exercise 2.7

Get inside your main character's head and write a few pages of how they think during a possible situation in your story.

What Is Your Character Afraid Of?

Fear is an emotion caused by the anticipation or awareness of danger or pain. This powerful state is generated in a character's subconscious mind based on negative thinking, past experiences, or current reality beliefs. Courage is the ability to take action in spite of fear, while thinking positively about future results. The more a character is afraid, the less likely they will take any action. The less fear a character has in their perceptions of reality, the more power and excitement they will have to accomplish their goals. Emotional states are like magnets, which attract situations that match the emotion being broadcast. A character who is really afraid of something will actually attract that thing into his world in order to resolve it. Audiences love to see characters wrestle with fears, since this is a universal emotional struggle for most people.

Not all characters are even aware of their fears. Unconscious fear drives a character's reactions, and you need to know what these are. Some characters may wear masks that hide their fears and often appear to be the opposite of the fear. If a character is terrified of people finding that the character is not as good as they appear, that character may act very snotty to cover up their insecurity. In Life Lessons, Lionel is afraid underneath all his flurry of actions that he will not be able to paint if his lover leaves. This causes him to react with extremely fearful freak-outs whenever his girlfriend threatens to leave. In Finding Nemo, Nemo's overprotective father is terrified of little Nemo getting eaten by another fish, since this is what happened to his wife and other children. One way to find fear in a developing character is to ask, "What would this character do if they knew they could not fail?"

After you know what your character is really afraid of, you know what they need to face.

Ways To Show Characters Overcoming Fears

If fear stops a character from taking action, you will need to show what motivates them enough to push through their fears in order to obtain their plot and theme goals. Below is a list to help you think of ways to show characters working through their fears, old wounds, or emotional blocks.

Types of Fears

  • Fear of losing someone or something very precious to you

  • Fear of not being good enough

  • Fear of being ridiculed

  • Fear of not being loved or wanted

  • Fear of failure

  • Fear of being vulnerable

  • Fear of past trauma repeating itself

  • Fear of snakes, spiders, viscious dogs, alligators, sharks, or killer bees

  • Fear of getting hurt or injured

  • Fear of things getting worse

  • Fear of losing what you already have

  • Fear of being alone

  • Fear of not knowing how to do something

  • Fear of being wrong

  • Fear of physical pain

  • Fear of illness

  • Fear of being rejected

  • Fear of being poor or homeless

  • Fear of someone finding out a big secret or insecurity about you

  • Fear of being caught for something you did in your past

  • Fear of a particular person, thing, or situation that has been harmful in the past

Ways a Character Might Overcome a Fear

  • Character faces fear and succeeds, gaining confidence.

  • Hits bottom and asks for help or realizes there is nothing left to lose

  • Character becomes so paralyzed by fear they become weak and close to some form of death which causes big realization

  • Character takes a little step out of fear and meets with success, then takes another

  • Character starts taking some form of action

  • Character tries very hard to cover up fear and finally breaks down about truth or is exposed

  • Character snaps from tension of fear and gets into more emotionally free state

  • Character realizes fear is costing them too much and lets it go

  • Character is motivated by the welfare of others to act and get out of fear

  • Character relives past traumatic event in some way and works through fear

Figure 2.11Figure 2.11 My main character Ezzie's biggest fear is getting bit by one of the poisonous snakes or spiders that live in the vision quest caves. She flashes on this fearful image in her mind when the witchdoctor tells her she must go into Rattlesnake Cavern, the most dangerous place of them all, for her vision quest.

Figure 2.12Figure 2.12 Ezzie is sticking her arm down the body of a this giant rattlesnake to retrieve her lightening bug friend who accidentally flew into its mouth. Ezzie is first shown reacting with extreme terror to any snake, then getting more and more comfortable around them, since they are all over the vision quest cave. I use her reactions to snakes and spiders to show her character growth in the story. The more she masters her intuition, the less afraid she is of the creatures. What unique ways can you show your characters gradually overcoming their fears in your story?

Figure 2.13Figure 2.13 The most important thing to this Bigfoot is looking really good. He is especially proud of his unusually long Bigfoot hair. His biggest fear is losing his hair or going bald, which seems to be happening a little more each day, causing him great stress. His unconscious fear is not being loveable if he loses his hair. How can you create different believable layers of fear for your characters that match the concerns of people you know?

Project 2.10

Worst Thing. What would be the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist? What is your character most afraid of? Are there any unconscious fears your character may have that they are unaware of or hiding from?

Writing Exercise 2.8

Write a few pages about how your main character developed their biggest fear and give some ideas on how they might overcome it by taking action.


Character History in Films. Study your favorite films and write character histories from what is revealed about the characters onscreen. How do they experience life through their own personal reality filter? What does your protagonist's reality filter look like? Show this unique reality construction and contrast it with the other characters' views in your film.

Adding Universal and Unique Qualities

All characters have both universal and unique qualities. How is your character a universally generic archetype? Is your protagonist a rebel, saint, madman, hero, sinner, solider, mother, cowboy, detective, gangster, fortune-teller, outlaw, drunk, shopkeeper, or businessman? Is there something going on with this character we can all grab onto?

Then you need to make that archetypal character unique and stunningly original. What about a detective who can't remember anything (Memento) or an ant that wants to do things differently than the other ants (A Bug's Life)? A cowboy living in New York City (Midnight Cowboy)? A poor, single, mother-of-three fortune-teller living in the deep south (The Gift)? An orphan boy with unusually powerful wizard skills (Harry Potter)?

Figure 2.14Figure 2.14 Bigfoot Scaredy Cat. This Bigfoot who is normally supposed to be huge and brave is instead afraid of every little critter in the forest because he got bit once on the foot as a youngster.


Favorite Film Character Qualities. Go through your favorite films and list how the lead characters are both archetypal and unique.

Project 2.11

Universal and Unique Qualities. For each main character in your film, assign a universal and unique quality combination that we have not seen before in a film. These qualities may overlap with character traits.

Incorporating Unique Qualities

What does your character do that might be described as an eccentricity, strange behavior, or unique way of doing things? Adding unique qualities to your characters make them seem more original and realistic. Do they listen to swing music while gardening in cocktail attire, drive around naked at night and shoot at mailboxes to relieve stress, put ketchup on their pizza, or have five little dogs with them at all times? Are they attracted to really fat people for relationships or blondes that drive old muscle cars? What do they do when they are sad? Do they eat chocolate chip cookies in a bubble bath? We need to see these things to feel like your characters are real. There are no vanilla people, so don't make characters without any special flavor or color.

Questions to Consider for Unique Qualities

When thinking of unique qualities, see how you can relate qualities to the plot, character history, and backstory.

  1. What weird hobbies might they spend time doing? Fly fishing? Lawn bowling? What two weird hobbies could you combine for a new one?

  2. Where do they like to shop? Thrift stores or Saks?

  3. Strange musical tastes? Food? Movies? Entertainment?

  4. Sexual quirks? Dating preferences? How do they show affection?

  5. What strange thing or pet peeve really upsets your characters?

  6. Do they have offbeat eating habits or order food in restaurants in an unusual way?

  7. How and what do they drive?

  8. Strange nonverbal mannerisms? Grind their teeth, blink uncontrollably, turn their heads around fast as if seeing something?

  9. Do they have any unusual talents?

  10. What types of far-out clothes do they wear?

  11. How do they react to stress? Overeat? Beat up stuffed animals? Chop wood?

  12. How do they practice their spirituality? Strange rituals or meditations? Do they go to an unusual church?

  13. What is your character's idea of a unique dream vacation?

  14. What is the weirdest thing about your character?

  15. What are the strangest things people you know do that make them unique? How could you use these to spark original ideas?

Figure 2.15Figure 2.15 Banana Slug Cravings? This Bigfoot has an unusual taste for fresh banana slugs. What unique food quirks does your character have that might make the audience squirm?

Project 2.12

Create Five Unique Qualities. Using ideas from the preceding list, create at least five possible unique qualities for each of your main characters.

Writing Exercise 2.9

Write a few pages of a day in the life of one of your main characters, concentrating on showing as many of their unique qualities as possible.

Creating a Backstory

The world your characters inhabit need to be as interesting and unique as the characters themselves. The backstory consists of past events in your film world that directly affect the protagonist's emotional involvement in the plot as the story unfolds. Characters need emotions and attributes to really come alive, and these are developed through the backstory and character history. You need to define the limits of your film world in the backstory. Audiences will inspect your fictional world to find limits. These limits also help set up the conflict.

Writing Exercise 2.10

Write a few pages about the history of your film world. You could describe it like you are doing a documentary film on some interesting aspect or like you are writing a research report.

Characters Making Tough Choices Visually

How can you place your characters in positions where they must make difficult choices? How can you show them making these choices and stretch them out over time to see them really struggle? Show how the characters may be in conflict emotionally inside themselves over the choice. What types of insights could you have your characters discover during their decision-making process? Positive interactions with the world produce positive attitudes, and negative ones produce negative characters. The best stories are about choices and commitment. The decision-making process needs to be shown as visual actions.

Figure 2.16Figure 2.16 Bigfoot Boulder Tossing. This character makes decisions by tossing boulders off a cliff and seeing where they land.

Project 2.13

Creating a Backstory. Write a one- to two-page description of your film world. Use short paragraphs or lists to answer the following types of questions. Add any questions you think are important to develop your backstory. If the characters live underwater, you are going to have to explain how they breathe.

  1. How are your characters' current behaviors related to past film world events?

  2. How far out of town do most people go?

  3. Who runs the film world your characters inhabit?

  4. What is the social pecking order?

  5. Who makes the big decisions?

  6. What is considered good or bad in your world?

  7. What would your character give his life for to achieve in this world?

  8. What makes life worth living in your world?

  9. What is the best and worst thing that can happen to a character in your world?

  10. What are the characters in your story most concerned with— surviving each day or having perfectly manicured nails?

  11. How do your characters shop, eat, make love, work, exercise, and pray. Really imagine it in your mind to get into these characters and their worlds.

  12. Draw an overhead sketch or map of the house, town, city, region, or planet that your film world encompasses.

Project 2.14

Personal Visual Decision Making. List five actions (that can be shown visually) that you undertake when trying to make important decisions. Maybe you jog, take a bath, throw darts, roll dice, consult a psychic, go bowling, surf, take a poll of all your friends, pace, pray, ask for guidance in your dreams, do a tarot reading, play hockey, meditate, shoot at tin cans, or watch for superstitious signs. What do you do differently when forced to make a big decision under pressure?

Project 2.15

Visual Decision Making. Make a list of five ways to show the protagonist in your story making a big decision. A character who is pacing while making a decision is perceived differently than one who throws darts. How does your character make choices under extreme pressure? Exaggerate the normal decision-making behaviors in tense situations. If the character usually paces, perhaps under pressure the character paces quite frantically.

Incorporate Character Contradictions

People act differently around different people. You probably act differently around your friends than you do around your mother, lover, or boss. Create your supporting characters to bring out contradictory sides of your protagonist. Maybe you have a super-ambitious protagonist who is riddled with guilt about the extremes he goes to, to achieve his goals. With Character B, your protagonist is a sharp, angry, and ruthless competitor. With Character C, your protagonist acts like a sad, soft, guilty child. With Character D, your protagonist is happy and carefree. Use this technique to show characters that are beautiful on the outside, but who may be a complete mess on the inside.

Creating Strong and Revealing Character Reactions

The events in your story reveal the characters by how the characters react to them. Plot is a collection of events or actions toward a resolution. Character is the action and reaction of individuals in the story to the plot. Often the underlying theme is what causes characters to make the decision to react in certain ways. If you were creating a film on the theme of the destruction of greed, for instance, your characters personifying greed would always choose to react with the greed mindset to each situation as they destroy themselves.

You must remember to give screen time for the reactions of the characters to each event in your film. This allows the emotional impact to sink in with the audience members.

Figure 2.17Figure 2.17 Ezzie meets a lightening bug mentor in the vision quest cave who offers to be her guide. The bug is half blind and bumps into things but seems helpful. Later in the story we find out that the lightening bug works for Rugaro the witchdoctor and has been reporting back to him on Ezzie's progress. When the bug talks to Ezzie he seems scatterbrained, but when he reports into Rugaro we see that he is very cunning and sharp. This character contradiction makes the story more deep and interesting than just having the bug as a helpful character.

Figure 2.18Figure 2.18 These two Bigfoots are having very different reactions to what they just saw. One reacts with horror, whereas the other laughs; these different reactions reveal character. What ways can you have your characters react differently to events in your story to help us understand how they see the world?

Project 2.16

Contradictions. How can you incorporate some form of contradiction into your main characters? What other sides of your characters can be presented in different situations? How can you use different characters to bring out different sides of your protagonist?

Project 2.17

Character Reactions. List five ways your character could react to various events in your story. Make sure to create specific reaction shots for these moments in your script. Create one situation in which two or more characters react completely different to the same event.

Character Traits

To create consistent and original characters, it helps to define their basic traits. By picking one unique character-trait set for each of your main characters, you will be able to keep track of who they are when imagining them in situations, writing dialogue, and planning actions.

A character trait is anything that determines the way the character sees the world and how the character thinks, speaks, and acts.

Relate your trait sets to the character history, film world environment, backstory, social standing, occupation, emotional state, psychological profile, appearance, and other exercises you have already done.

Cliché characters have combinations of character traits we have seen before onscreen.

"The Goldman Five" Character-Trait System

Michael Dougan developed this technique to construct characters by assigning them five simple trait combinations. This idea is based on some things William Goldman said in his wonderful book Adventures In The Screen Trade (Warner Books, 1983).

    One best trait. The thing this character is better at doing than anyone else in the film world.

    One worst trait. The biggest negative trait that prevents the character from achieving goals and may cause the downfall of the character if it is not overcome.

    Three other traits. These other three traits are ones you add to make sure your character has an original combination of traits.

The big negative trait has to be a flaw or weakness that prevents the character from obtaining his or her goals. If your character's main plot goal is to drink himself to death (Leaving Las Vegas), being an alcoholic may be his best trait to accomplish that goal. You can track growth and change in a character by monitoring that one negative trait. By changing, a protagonist may turn this negative trait into a positive one by the end of the film. Try not to duplicate positive or negative traits among character sets. If you have one kid who has the best collection of comic books hanging out with other comic book kids, have them all specialize in different types of comic books.

The antagonist usually cannot overcome his or her negative trait at the end, which results in the antagonist's ultimate downfall. Most antagonists are either ignorant of their worst trait or completely revel in it. A tragic character loses all his good traits in a downward spiral throughout the story, from the weight of the big negative trait pulling him under. Hannibal Lector is better at killing people than anyone else (main positive for his plot goal). We may not like serial killers, but we admire Hannibal's skill. He is a genius, gourmet cook, and classy guy. His big negative trait is that he is completely insane. Study your favorite films for these trait sets to see how different combinations are developed for each character.

Character-Trait Chart

The following traits are loosely divided into positive and negative. Good traits help characters accomplish their goals, whereas worst traits stop them from getting what they want and need. Do not pick two traits that are similar. Lots of traits that do not sound very much alike are, such as "warrior" and "brave." It is fine to have two character traits that are cliché, as long as you balance them with two traits that are really original to create a unique set. You can add traits later that pop up while writing your script and remove ones that are not being used.

Project 2.18

List Traits. Create a unique set of traits for each main character in your film. Use the character trait chart for ideas. After you have decided on your final five unique trait sets for each main character, write the character's name and trait set on an index card and hang it up next to your script-writing area. These cards help keep your characters consistent to their main traits as you write your script.

Character Trait Chart

Possible Best Traits

Other Possible Traits



Possible Worst Traits













Middle class


Dead inside









































Well educated
















Black humor













Hot tempered




Party animal



Easy going






























































High strung

Burned out
















Figure 2.19Figure 2.19 This Bigfoot is better at levitating (floating) than any other one in the clan. This unusual best trait works great for animation and is something we have not seen much of before onscreen. What types of unique digitally enhanced character traits could you give your character (for instance, the ability to fly, glow, or become invisible)?


Keep Adding to Your Trait Chart. Add interesting character traits from movies you see for future reference.

Writing Exercise 2.11

Write a few pages about a main character where you only concentrate on showing their five main character traits in action. If their best trait is being a top-ranked mountain climber, then you could start with them climbing a mountain. You might also want to write a few pages with two main characters interacting with each other, focusing on how their different trait sets cause agreement and conflict.


What Is Your Absolute Best and Worst Trait? Notice how these may pop up in your characters and usually change as we grow and learn.

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