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Film and life: seeing character in action

I am still working on my first screenplay, which has been a 5-year process, and after so many years learning how to plot a story, I am amazed by how screenplays parallel life.

In a script, two stories are always at play: there’s the problems and conflicts that exist in the external or physical world and then there’s the character’s internal reality (which is naturally impacted by the external one.)

On the screen, it’s the external story we see in motion: this is the character’s main goal. Let’s say the main character’s childhood dog has been kidnapped. Our protagonist’s goal is to rescue him, and she’ll face repeated obstacles and setbacks trying to pursue that goal. In every scene, a character wants something and either gets it or is thwarted—that’s drama, and screenwriters ratchet up the stakes to make it compelling.

It sounds self-serving, but in life we also enter every situation wanting something. It might be ordering a hamburger, zoning out and watching tv after a long day, flattering someone, finishing reading a paragraph without interruption or something loftier, like helping someone. We get our needs met (a juicy hamburger) or frustrated (we have to wait, despite our grumbling tummy), though with less drama; then we move onto the next situation, driven by the next need.

In film, the external plot is dull without the character’s internal transformation, known as the character arc. This is what the character needs to learn (which is largely unconscious) in order to reach her goal. Because you can’t show a character’s inner world--what's intangible, such as a character's personal fears, assumptions, or emotional scars—it’s reflected in action. So let’s say our protagonist’s dog is being held by her ex-husband, who she is still in love with, and now her loyalties are split. In order to rescue her dog, she'll need to overcome her projections, seeing her ex for who he is.

In life we also judge character based on someone’s actions or what we observe. Let’s say you see someone shouting at their child in line at a crowded supermarket--you'll probably think this person is unpleasant, impatient or even cruel. But maybe they just lost their job, and this is their last 10 dollars, so what you’re really witnessing is their desperation in trying to feed their child.

In the movies, when our hero rises to external challenges, it’s because she is engaging her inner being, which helps her to grow and expand, becoming a more empowered version of herself. It’s what’s happening inside that utlimately determines what happens outside. If she runs away from those challenges, she will be destined to repeat them and suffer until she overcomes them. Or she might fail to change altogether, leading to tragedy.

What I find so fascinating about happy endings where the hero gets the goal—in this case, she saves her dog—is that success hinges on overcoming internal obstacles and outgrowing self-imposed limitations. The story isn’t just about getting the dog, it’s also about self-worth and fighting for what she wants. The external world simply reflects what’s inside her by teasing (or sometimes yanking) it out.

And that’s life, too. Life circumstances continually show us what we are made of, throwing obstacles in our way, inviting us on adventures, and testing our ideas, values and inner resolve. Our adventure might not look like Luke Skywalker joining the rebel Jedi forces because it's usually more low-key, like making a phone call we don’t want to make, or showing up at an event solo when we’re anxious to meet someone. But the same ideas are at play.

In life and screenplays, adversity challenges us to sculpt our souls and grow. We either meet those challenges or we resist and refuse the call until they cycle around again, as they always do.

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