Fall in Love with Your Characters: Writing screenplay characters that resonate

I struggled for years to write a script that would make contest judges, producers and my twelfth grade English teacher sing its praise. Now, that it’s happened, everyone wants to know how I got here. Everyone, except my English teacher, I’m pretty sure she’s retired.

Well, I took classes, read lots of manuals, climbed the cliffs of the most exalted and marketed gurus. I got lots of sound professional advice. But none of it stuck. And then, IT happened.

In the end, it was like falling in love. My heart raced and my typing fingers tingled. The hero of my dreams was named Morgan Masters. He was only 16 and I was…well, a multiple of that. He had a social development issue and I had a debilitating addiction to the Boston Gay Mens’ Choir. But none of that mattered when we first met. I didn’t think about the whens, whys or hows. Unlike my failed relationships with ex-protagonists, I decided to let things happen naturally, organically. And it felt amazing. He fascinated me as no other character ever had. I wanted to get his view on everything.

“Fall in love with your characters” is not a cliche. It’s a screenwriting necessity. With Morgan, I discovered that the success of my script is wholly dependent on my relationship with the protagonist. If I’m dishonest, act passive-aggressively, or take his behavior for granted, then the story fizzles out. In this way, my writing process is similar to the rules of a satisfying courtship.

There is a time for awkward introductions, handholding and private jokes, which leads to the wonder of that first real kiss. Later, much later for us bashful bards, there is that major revelation, which either deepens the bond or creates insurmountable obstacles. We fight, make up, fight, and the fights intensify because I know enough about my protagonist now to create the most damaging weapons. At this point, the stakes are really high, because we’ve shared so much of our time, energy and feelings. I get clingy and look for validation from other writers, which always confuses things. Usually, that’s when I start trying to manipulate. Then, I push too far. My protagonist pulls away and I’m left with an interesting situation but no story.

With Morgan, I really listened to what he wanted and feared. I also admitted what I wanted and feared. Our time together was empowering, unique and so much fun.

But alas, I am a literary polygamist. I still love Morgan and I cheer for him as he battles to the top of the contest heap. And yet, another hero, a convict no less, has completely captured my attention. He’s greedy, vain and prone to bouts of screaming in people’s faces, all of which I find adorable.

What can I do? My writer’s heart wants what it wants. All I can do is listen and transcribe.