Writing: Four Essential Qualities That All Leading Characters Should Have

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Cover image via Warner Brothers

In the book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. He believes that a well-developed character should have these four essential qualities.

  1. The characters have a strong and defined dramatic need;
  2. They have an individual point of view.
  3. They personify an attitude.
  4. They go through some kind of change or transformation.

If your character has these needs, then Field believes that your character will be received well by the audience and will also be memorable.

Every main character needs a dramatic need; it should be their primary drive, what they want to win, gain, obtain or achieve within the story. This need should be their fuel, their constant source of energy that drives them through the every step of the story. If they don’t have this dramatic need, they shouldn’t be in the story. It is their reason for existing within the world that they exist.

Point of view is defined as the way your character sees the world. Every person on this planet has an individual perspective. Point of view is a belief system and as we know, what we believe to be true, is true.

Is your character in the 99% or 1%?  Is your character a racist? Point of view is an individual belief system, and it will define your character’s outlook on to the world he or she lives in. It will be a great way to generate conflict, and no film can progress naturally without conflict. Conflict = Drama.

Attitude is defined as a custom or opinion, and this becomes a way of acting or feeling that will reveal your characters personal opinion. It is common enough to mix up attitude between point of view, and you may struggle to define the differences between these two qualities. It doesn’t necessarily matter, but to help you differentiate the two as much as you can, here’s an example; an attitude is an intellectual decision, and so it can and probably will be classified by a judgment: right or wrong, good or bad, optimistic or pessimistic.

If you can understand your character’s attitude, you will be able to let them touch their humanity in an individual way. Is he enthusiastic about his life or job? Does she think that the Yankees have lost their magic?

Joker
Image via Warner Brothers
The fourth quality that is used to create a great character is change. Does your character change during your story? Can you define it? In the Heroes Journey its states that all heroes must return a different person than before, if they were once cowardly they should return brave, and so forth. It’s important to remember that when you’re writing a screenplay, the main character must be active, she must cause things to happen, not let things happen to her.

“Film is behavior; action is character and character, action; what a person does is who he is, not what he says.”

For more great writing tips I highly recommend buying a copy of  Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting: A Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to finished Script. It’s a highly informational book and just one of those books that you should have on your bookshelf.

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About The Author

Lewis McGregor is an aspiring filmmaker, photographer and online content creator from Wales.

  • Gabriel

    What about in stories when the villains win (Ex: Killing the main character or putting him in a checkmate) ? How do these qualities apply then?

    • In what sense Gabriel? How do these qualities apply to the villain or to the main character still? Even if your character is set to die the qualities mentioned should still exist.

      The character might have been afraid/weak when he was alive, but through the course of their actions the character might die a brave man, or so forth. Hence the change.