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Character Growth

Why do we care about film and television? What weird phenomenon drives us to stare at a screen for hours on end, often in the insufferable company of other people? I’ll tell you what it is: we’re narcissists. Each and every one of us.

We lose ourselves in Film and TV because we see people we recognize. Not literally, of course, unless you know celebrities, and in which case – good for you, stop bragging. No, I’m talking about seeing people who look like us, sound like us, act like us, who have our struggles and who share our personality traits. We’re all narcissists. We want to see ourselves.

But more than just see ourselves, we want to see ourselves grow. Now, we can’t hit fast forward on our own lives to find out where we end up, but we can ride out ninety minutes in a movie theatre, or several hours in front of the TV. And it’ll be worth it. Because there’s no sweeter payoff than seeing characters we love reach the end of their arc. However, here’s where the rubber hits the road: for characters to reach the end, they’ve got to start somewhere. And that’s the key. That’s the whole point of this nearly useless article, emphasis on nearly.

Characters MUST start somewhere.

A lot of screenwriting boffins will tell you to introduce the audience to the main character and his world immediately. They’ll say it’s important to anchor the reader in the character’s worldview. And sure, that makes a lot of sense. Do that. But do something else too. Give us your protagonist’s flaws and make those deficits abundantly clear. Do not make subtlety your friend here. We want to see someone’s blackheads before you reveal their silky-smooth skin at the end. Yes, it’s an acne metaphor, sue us.

Want an actual example? Fine, you got one.

In the very first scene of As Good As It Gets, the cantankerous old git, Jack Nicholson, throws his neighbour’s dog down the trash chute. You heard that correctly. He tries to kill a dog, or perhaps more aptly, doesn’t care if it lives to tell the tale or not. Granted, it took some extraordinary writing and acting, to stop people from walking out of the movie theatre, but it was a profound way to introduce the protagonist. The audience knew right away that this dude was ripe for change. We knew he was lonely AF, had a short temper, and was bored out of his brains.

He was the quintessential d******d. But one we would come to love and root for.

Jack Nicholson’s journey in that film isn’t a linear one. For every step forward, he takes two steps back. But we’re with him along the way, because in the back of our reptilian brains, we remember what he was like when we set out. And that’s a powerful bookend.

So, simply put, for a character to show growth, you need to express where he is to begin with. Do not let subtlety be your friend.

Characters MUST start somewhere. Keep writing,

(Even when your parents stop believing in you) (not speaking from experience here) (Okay, I’ll shut up).

Screenplay Report.