Carson Reeves of ScriptShadow.net has written a great article about how to give your main character depth and make them feel both like a real person and like someone we can root for. We don’t want to see perfect people who have nothing to learn up on the screen, both because such characters wouldn’t have very interesting journeys, and because they feel flat. People have flaws, goals, and vices, and so should your characters, particularly your lead (but also your love interests, villains, and side characters).
Here are the four ways Carson says you can give depth to your characters:
Flaw – A character (or fatal) flaw is the dominant negative trait that’s held your character back from becoming the person he’s meant to be. Selfishness, lack of trust, won’t open up, won’t stand up for themselves, being irresponsible – these are all flaws you’ve seen hundreds of times in films. The most powerful character flaws tend to be the ones that have hindered your character their entire lives. So in Rocky, Rocky has never believed in himself. But flaws can occasionally be a more recent problem, typically the result of a recent traumatic experience. So if a character was recently dumped by someone they loved, maybe their flaw is that they don’t trust love anymore.
When done right, the character flaw is the most effective way to add depth to your character. This is because once a reader identifies a character’s flaw, there’s an intrinsic need to see that flaw overcome. Being able to change is one of the most universally relatable experiences there is. So seeing someone else do it makes us believe we can do it. It’s almost like we’re living THROUGH the character, and that’s what creates that deep emotional connection.
Inner Conflict – The term “Inner conflict” is often mixed up with “character flaw” because they both infer struggle within our character. But inner conflict is less about overcoming one’s big weakness and more about a battle being waged inside the character. To execute a great inner conflict, you want to give your character two opposing forces that are pulling at him. Luke Skywalker (as well as Darth Vader) is being pulled by both good and evil in Return of the Jedi. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is trying to decide between being good or bad. A newly announced Andrew Garfield film is about a real estate agent who starts illegally kicking people out of their homes. He becomes rich doing so, but his conscience starts to eat at him. He’s conflicted with whether earning a living this way is the right thing (inner conflict).
Again, the advantage of adding an inner conflict is that you’re tackling a universal experience. We’re constantly dealing with our own conscience, with what’s right and wrong, being pulled in opposite directions. The most unsettled we tend to be in our lives is when we’re fighting these inner battles. It’s a very intense experience, and therefore we relate to and engage when we see a character going through the same.
Vices – Vices are often used incorrectly in screenplays, as many beginning writers believe that simply adding a drinking or drug addiction will give their character that elusive “depth” all these producers and agents talk about. 99 times out of 100, however, the characters unfortunate enough to be created this way feel cliché. Why? Because unless you’re exploring the vice in all its depth and complexity, it feels sprayed on, a false veneer hiding the fact that you don’t know how to build depth. A vice is the physical manifestation of an inner conflict. It’s drugs, food, alcohol, sex, gambling – any physical addiction your character can’t control.
In my experience, the only time vices truly add depth to characters is when the writer commits to them 100% – when they explore all the complexities and faults and issues and pitfalls and devastations that come with them. We saw it in Flight, we saw it in Leaving Las Vegas, we saw it in Half-Nelson, we even see it in The Dark Knight (The Joker’s vice is chaos). The screenplay almost has to be ABOUT the vice for it to truly resonate. Otherwise, if you’re just slapping it in there to try and make your character feel “deep,” it’s probably not going to work.
Fears – Fears are the last and typically weakest way to add depth to your character. The reason being, they’re surface level. Unlike a flaw, an inner conflict, or a vice, there isn’t a whole lot going on under the hood with a fear. Take Indiana Jones. His fear is snakes. Good for a chuckle, not much else. Or Brody from Jaws. He’s afraid of water. Cool for later when he must go into the ocean to kill the shark, but it doesn’t really add much depth to his character. Or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. His fear is heights. Sets up a nifty little finale where he must climb up the building to get to Julia Roberts, but there’s never a moment in the film where we feel the depth of Richard Gere being afraid of heights. It’s just a cute little setup and payoff, as are all these examples.
Now this doesn’t mean you don’t want characters who are afraid in your screenplays. Fear is a very powerful emotion. And as you can see from the examples above, it’s a nice little addition to a character who already has depth. You just don’t want fear to be the only element of depth in your character. Any fear should be in addition to, not in place of, these options. The one exception is if the fear is integral to the storyline. For example, if your character was raped, and now they’re afraid to leave the house in fear of getting raped again, obviously the fear is adding depth to your character.
Read the rest of the article at Script Shadow to learn how to best implement these tools in your script.