20 Jun 2011

Script Reader Gripes: #1 What does your character want? Apart from a re-write.

Ask any script reader and if they are being honest they will tell you that the majority of scripts they read are poor (read like first drafts and by page ten the reader wishes they had been good at maths at school), the rest are average (readable, competent but dull) and the small minority are works of genius. Script readers read a lot and they can go months without reading a script that stands out; in this time the script reader becomes a frustrated angry person to be around - just ask my boyfriend and he will confirm this.

Get a group of script readers together and it doesn't take long for the gripes to come pouring out; as a rule script readers are solitary creatures so it's always fun to share the voices in your head with fellow readers who understand your pain. Before the writers among you see us script readers as the enemy and a whiny bunch at that, remember this - as a writer you should also be a script reader. If you don't read and analyse other peoples' scripts, (whether you are getting paid or not) you are doing yourself a serious injustice.

You can learn from the good scripts but I always think you can learn much more from the bad - and that is what these 'Script Reader Gripes' posts are going to aim to achieve; an insight into the lessons that can be learnt from years spent reading those bad/average scripts. 


The classic 'All good stories start with character' is true. Which is why it is extra-frustrating when the majority of scripts I read suffer from being event-led and not character-driven, but what does 'event-led and not character-driven' even mean?

There is a big difference between a script that reads like a series of events and a script that is driven by its character making tough choices. An event led script is exactly that, it's when a character goes through a series of events and not much else; these events are often thrown in for shock value, you've seen them hundreds of times before and they feel like they have no real impact on the main character; car crash, bomb explosion, relationship ends, fight scenes etc: it can be anything you want that will look pretty when shot and feel dramatic (deceptively so) ... an on-the-nose example of this is as follows:

EVENT LED: Ben lives at home with sexy wife and young kid, his wife is angry at him for spending all his time at work. Ben goes to work as a police officer, he catches a criminal, gets in to a fight, the criminal escapes via helicopter, Ben does a high speed car chase, he catches the criminal again, another fight, Ben discovers lots of drugs in criminal's den, arrests criminal, wins an award, goes home to happy sexy wife and kid - he is a hero. The end. 

Lots of stuff going on but do you know who Ben is? Do you feel empathy for him when he gets in a fight? Do you want him to resolve his relationship with his wife? No, me neither, I couldn't give a rat's arse. Booorrrriiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnggggggggggg. The world is happening around Ben, Ben is not making the world happen around him. (And why are the wives always 'sexy' - that's another blog for another time...)

An exciting script to read (of any genre) is always a script that is character driven, where the character has decisions to make, these decisions have consequences and the stakes are high - the character has a lot to lose both materialistically and emotionally (you would be surprised how often the emotional stakes are forgotten). To write a script that is character driven is damn hard but absolutely imperative if you want your audience to feel empathy for your character. So how do you write a script that is character driven and not fall in to the events pit of doom? The best place to start is to ask yourself:

What does my character 'want'? Followed quickly by...
What does my character 'need'?

Look at these questions on both an external and an internal level: the external level is about the materialistic things the character wants and what the character actually needs to overcome to achieve their want/goal. The internal level is emotional and is what motivates them. The internal levels are the emotional qualities that the character needs to overcome if they are to achieve their goals - in my humble opinion the great scripts know how to work this internal level. For example, let's make up a character, hell, let's use Ben the police officer again, it's not like he's busy:

Character of Ben
EXTERNAL: Wants: a promotion. Needs: to catch a notorious criminal. 

The want is your character's goal and their life desire - here Ben 'wants' a promotion, he 'needs' to catch a badass criminal if he is going to ever get his 'want'. The criminal is the obstacle, the promotion is the goal.

INTERNAL: Wants: love Needs: humility

Your character's internal wants and needs should oppose each other in some way. Here Ben wants to be loved, this is his motivation in life, he can't stand it when he thinks somebody doesn't love him and every decision he makes is based in his want to be loved. But sadly Ben will never fully achieve real love if he does not learn to conquer his 'need', in this case, humility. Ben could be arrogant, full of himself, prides himself on status - thinking these are the things that will get him love and he can't understand why it doesn't work - it doesn't work because he hasn't learnt what he really 'needs' to make himself a better person. If he 'wants' to find true love, he 'needs' to learn humility. There's a journey to be had here...

Now you can give your character some mighty obstacles to over come - let the story begin. You know what emotionally drives Ben and we are willing him to show a bit of humility but of course he never does. We see him struggle with himself in his quest for love that always fails - we empathise with Ben, we get behind a character when we know what they are emotionally struggling to overcome because as human beings we all deal with our own emotional good and bad points everyday too. We want Ben to find it in himself to swallow his pride, to take that leap of faith and do what comes hardest to him, we want him to learn something about himself so that he can lead a happier life. Most importantly - we feel we know who Ben is. You still have all of your car chases and fight scenes but now events will feel dramatically heightened because we want Ben to have a chance to learn humility so he can find love! We don't want Ben beaten to death so he never gets his chance at love - unless it's a tragedy.

                               Yes alright Debs, but what do you really need? 

You can watch films and try and work out the character's external and internal wants and needs, look at people you know and write down theirs, write down your own! It's a simple starting point but you might be surprised where it will take you. I've lost count on the number of stories I've read that are based purely on a character's external wants and needs, completely lacking emotional drives of any kind. There are of course lots and lots of expert advice and web resources for character development and you should probably read all of them. But as an absolute basic remember...

If you don't know what your character wants, he needs a re-write.

Keep writing, reading and eating (in your face Jerry Springer)


  1. Amen! This is one of those key bits that my writing MA hit me over the head with-- to great benefit to me! As much as I hated the forced acting classes, every day being stopped in a scene and being asked "what do you want? inside AND out?" really got it embedded in my brain.

    So, yes! Amen, I say, Aaaaamen!!!

  2. Hey Jamie,

    Praise be to you for all of your Ammmeeeeennnns! If I ever bump in to you I know what my first question is going to be. :)