Screenplay Character


A compelling story can be written around, actually driven by, a character's affliction, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. It might be an incurable disease, leading the story to be about acceptance, suffering, and ultimate surrender. Or a condemned man might fight on, his last fight, before his illness overcomes him, discovering more about life and the people around him than he ever knew in the process.

A medical adventure story might be crafted around the search for a cure, many miracle examples of such actually having occurred throughout history. Successful treatment of a debilitating illness could lead to a fascinating recovery, taking a character from hopeless to hopeful. Perhaps the blind sees for the first time, or the deaf hears. The cripple can take the first steps of his life. The abnormal enters normal society, but with a completely different perspective.

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  1. Review the mental illnesses catalogued in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (often referred to simply as "the DSM"). Which of these have you seen depicted in motion pictures? Which might you see yourself basing a character on? Would it be a debilitating disease with no cure, or would the film be about discovering or benefiting from a treatment? How would you craft a story around any one of these syndromes?
  2. View the Jack Nicholson film As Good As It Gets (1997). The main character suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, as has the screenwriter all of his life. Consider how he used this altered reality from which to view "normal" life.
  3. View the classic Rear Window (1954) with Jimmy Stewart. Consider how the world revolves around this wheel-chair bound photographer. How does director Alfred Hitchcock exploit the main character's affliction to heighten suspense in this famous thriller?
  4. Review the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man (1988). How is the central character's affliction turned into an asset during the course of the story?
  5. View The Elephant Man (1980). Consider how the central character's affliction takes him from degradation to the heights of society only to curtail his life. What are the challenges to a screenwriter when tackling a story like this?