A while back, Carson Reeves of Scriptshadow posted something that caught my attention. I don’t always agree with everything Carson does, and I often disagree with his opinions about scripts, lol, but I had an “a-ha” moment reading this one.
Like many insightful gems, this one was buried inside an article geared towards something else (I find that screenwriting teachers often do this); in this case, it was a post-review analysis of the script Desperate Hours.
Carson LOVED this script (I think he’s spent the last few months trying to put a ring on it). Personally, I thought it was okay. To use his rating system, I would say it was [XX] worth the read or – maybe) -[x] impressive. Carson thought it was [x] genius, and ranked it as his new number one script of all time.
The script was good, don’t get me wrong, but the many positives he cited were not strong enough (for me) to completely ignore the flaws it did have. That being said, it was a good read, and the writer is clearly talented.
Anyway, in his discussion about “how to write a genius script”, he talks about how to make characters real, and his take on it was an eye-opener for me.
We are always told to “make the characters three-dimensional”. But what does that mean? We can do character backgrounds and profiles until we’re blue in the face – that doesn’t translate into knowing how to convey it in the script.
His entire discussion on characters in this article is [x] impressive, but here’s what Carson said that really got my attention:
You’ve probably heard from agents and producers and other screenwriters that your characters must exhibit three dimensions. Except nobody really talks about what that means. Well, we just dealt with one dimension – an overarching backstory. Dimension 2 is an unresolved issue from the past (the most specific/important piece of your character’s backstory). And dimension 3 is a fatal flaw.
I’m not convinced that “overarching” is the word Carson intended to use, but it makes sense that the character needs to arc in his backstory. His second point, an unresolved issue from the past, was something I hadn’t heard before – or, at least, not in those terms. The third is often talked about in some of the different books and guides you can find, but it isn’t really discussed in depth.
Carson’s Three Dimensions of a Character
- Arching Backstory
- Unresolved Issue from the Past
- Fatal Flaw
So what does all this mean?
As Carson mentioned, there are other ways to make a character three-dimensional; this is just one way. And, in keeping with the spirit of my post last week about generalities in screenwriting theory, I feel obligated to state that this certainly won’t work for all characters. But let’s explore this idea a bit to see if we can grasp it further.
First, we need to ask some questions about the character’s backstory.
- How did they get from a single Point A (in the past) to Point B (now)?
- What mistakes did they make along the way?
- How has this impacted their relationships with other characters in the story – even if they are unseen (such a childhood relationship with one’s mother)?
- How does the character feel about all of this?
- How does this impact who and where they are now?
Carson already discussed Desperate Hours, so let’s see who else we can apply these theories to.
Marlin (Finding Nemo)
Marlin’s relationship with his son is tested when Nemo outgrows his father’s overprotectiveness (Pixar Films)
[SPOILERS] abound. Continue at your own peril.
I almost feel like it isn’t fair to use Finding Nemo as an example for anything because the film was so close to perfection for me. But, ultimately, it sets a very high standard that we should all be trying to achieve.
Marlin went from “happy newlywed and expectant father” to “overprotective dad” after his wife and most of their fertilized eggs were killed.
Unresolved Issue From the Past
Marlin couldn’t save his wife and eggs; additionally, he couldn’t stop his wife from sacrificing herself to save their kids.
Marlin has a few flaws… He’s uptight. He’s particular – a borderline control freak, even (which we see before the inciting incident when he tells Coral, “Well, we’ll name one Nemo, but I’d like most of them to be Marlin Jr.”).
Marlin doesn’t trust anyone. Why? Because he is afraid – this is his fatal flaw, and it translates into overprotectiveness when it comes to Nemo.
All of these elements interact with and influence the others.
The backstory led to the unresolved issue from his past, which then transformed his fatal flaw into a genuine problem that impacted his relationship with his son, Nemo.
Let’s compare these answers to the earlier questions we asked.
- His backstory + his unresolved issue + his fatal flaw = how he got here.
- His mistakes are putting his own emotions and insecurities ahead of his relationship with his son. He’s so afraid of losing Nemo that he doesn’t allow him to grow up and be his own person. Er, his own fish.
- It impacts his relationship with Nemo because Marlin is suffocating his son.
- Marlin feels justified in his overprotectiveness because he fails to recognize his own flaw.
- The plot of the film begins when the effects of all of these backstory elements come crashing down on Nemo and Marlin like a proverbial wave.
In Finding Nemo, the effects of Marlin’s backstory, his unresolved issues, and his character flaw(s) don’t just affect him personally – their impact drives the entire movie.
And that’s part of the reason why the film is so compelling. It’s not called Nemo, it’s called Finding Nemo – because the story is about Marlin’s journey as a father who learns to recognize his faults, who learns to trust others, and who learns to overcome his crippling fear – all because he loves his son.
Think of a movie in the genre you are writing that has an intriguing, three-dimensional character. What makes the protagonist (or antagonist) so compelling? How is their backstory revealed during the film?
Now consider your own characters. If they feel a little flat, this solution might work for you. It could be a subtle change that makes all the difference in the world, or it could inspire a complete rewrite. Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes to your script – better now than later.
Breathe some life into your characters. It can only make your script stronger.