We all face challenges in life, but it’s how we deal with them that really shapes our lives. It’s useful to keep this in mind when designing characters.
In screenplay writing you often hear people talking about the external and the internal journey.
The External Journey
… is the part of the narrative that takes place in the physical world, the “action” that takes place, and is the portion of the story that is easiest for aspirant writers to articulate. This happens, then that happens, then another thing happens, and eventually they live happily ever after – or not! (A group of cattle thieves arrive in a law respecting town – they kill the sheriff and replace him with one of their group – a lone cowboy passing through town falls for a prostitute – the cattle thieves pillage and steal from the townsfolk at will – after they rape and murder the prostitute, the cowboy gathers the townsfolk to fight back – after killing the crooked sheriff in a shoot-out, he chases the bad men out of town – finally he decides to settle down and stay on as the new sheriff.)
The Internal Journey
… on the other hand is more difficult to articulate, because it has to run concurrently with the external story, and it is exclusively character based. It is in fact the change a character undergoes when they face their greatest fear and learn to overcome that fear as a result of their external journey. (Let’s say that our restless “cowboy” arrives in town a pacifist and refuses to carry a gun. This is because when he was a child he was a gifted gunslinger, but he accidently shot and killed his brother – he’s never been able to forgive himself… or touch a gun again. To save the town, he has to overcome his fear of guns, finally absolve himself, face the new sheriff in a gunfight and win back his self-respect.)
Who a character is on the inside is often not clear from their actions and interaction with the outside world at the beginning of a story. Often the inner-self has been suppressed so far inside of the character that they forget, fail to or are unable to recognise or express their true selves and it takes an extraordinary experience for them to initiate change.
Through some sombre introspection and analysis, psychologists have uncovered that as we grow older we are seduced by societal acknowledgement and that the real self withdraws into the background, coercing us to become a reflection of what we think others want us to be. The internal journey is about reversing this and allowing us to realise our true potential.
As a screenwriter we can use this knowledge to create unique, interesting and complex characters that are particularly suited to telling our stories effectually. By understanding the configuration of how our personalities work, we are able to reverse engineer our characters to serve our very specific requirements and story goals, thereby capturing the emotions and attention of our audience.