|"It bestows immortality and tastes like rich, chocolate Ovaltine."|
Screenwriter D. B. Gilles, who was an instructor of mine as an undergrad, writes that some storytellers start out with a killer story idea:
"The Holy Grail has been found, and the Nazis are after it."
"A prison break."
"A pauper finds a magic lamp."
...and others come up with the character first:
"An overprotective father who's lost his entire family except for one son."
"A cynical, world-weary nightclub owner in Morocco."
"A college dropout crushed by suicidal guilt after the death of his older brother."
There's no one "right" way to write (although there are plenty of wrong ways), and so as a writer, you can work either way, as befits your style.
However, I've found more and more that if you're starting from square one, having just a little bit of information about your character will essentially dictate your entire story arc. Put another way, if you can answer the following eight questions about your character, then you'll be well on your way to placing that character into a compelling, evocative story before you even type FADE IN:
1. What are they best at/worst at?
What UCLA/Hollins's Tim Albaugh calls, "Larger than life." What makes your character amazing? What is their skill set that sets them apart? Is it an asset or a liability? How is it integrated (i.e., how will it come into play over the course of your narrative)? What makes your character interesting from the beginning?
2. What is their greatest tangible desire?
What's the plot goal? The grail? Nemo? Ilsa Lund? Moving a house to Paradise Falls? What does your protagonist want more than anything else, something that he/she will move heaven and earth to attain? This must be something tangible, and not an abstract concept like "love," "respect," or "success." If they're after these things, then you must show a physical representation of it. Something that has a clear before and after moment: "Now that I've won the girl, I've found love," or "Now that I've found the grail, my father will respect me."
3. What is their greatest fear?
This question sets up what it is that your character must face. Whatever it is that they fear the most has to be an ever-hanging sword above their head. If they don't like spiders, they have to face the biggest, ugliest spider they've ever seen. If they fear solitude, then force them to confront their loneliness. This is where you dream up an ideal antagonist for your main character. Whoever it is they face off against must somehow evoke that of which your lead role is the most terrified. It's fun to watch people move past their fears. So will it be with your protagonist.
4. What are the stakes?
Blake Snyder calls these primal. He even goes as far as to say that your protagonist must somehow always be facing death. Death can be a metaphor for something else (there are things that are worse than death, after all), but whatever represents the worst possible outcome for your character must be omnipresent. In Up, if Carl doesn't move his house to Paradise Falls within three days, he won't make it there, and the single greatest promise he made to his late wife will remain forever unfulfilled (which would be tantamount to an emotional death, rather than physical). Donnie Darko has a month to save the universe from destruction. In Casablanca, the outcome of World War II might depend on whether or not Rick Blaine gives the letters of transit to his former lover and her husband. This must be a big deal. Somehow or other, lives must be at stake. If your protagonist fails, his/her life will be forever and irrevocably changed for the worse.
5. What is the wound?
Your character needs to have missed the boat on something. An opportunity to be the bigger person needs to have come their way, and in not taking it, tragedy struck. In Braveheart William Wallace's inaction in the beginning leads to the slaughter or his wife. In Finding Nemo, Marlin loses 400 family members in seconds. Ilsa walked out on Rick in Casablanca. This answers the questions, "Why is this character the way he/she is?" Why is Wallace such a ruthless war leader? Why is Marlin such a suffocating parent? Why is Rick so cynical? Have you ever played with a baby? They're lumps of happiness. Fast forward 20 years and they've become judgmental, self-centered, and selfish. What the hell happened? That's your wound.
6. What is their main flaw?
Perfect characters are boring. We like watching characters who are complex puzzles because we are complex puzzles, ourselves. As such, your character's biggest flaw must not only be intrinsically linked with their wound, but it also must shine forth as the character's defining characteristic. Whatever their flaw is, they must be wearing it on their sleeve in each and every scene. It tells them who to befriend, where to go, what to do, how to act. Their flaw defines them, and they spend the rest of your film trying to transcend it and define themselves.
7. How are they sympathetic?
The best characters remind us of ourselves, and as such they must deal with universal themes: love, loss, reaching for a goal, and so on. Everyone, from China to Brazil to Nigeria to Poland to Baltimore, everyone knows what it's like to have loved somebody or lost somebody. We all know what it's like to be jealous, to feel pain, to aspire to be greater. The most successful franchises deal with these themes. Your characters must remind us of ourselves. They must be underdogs. We need to want to see them win, because we want to see ourselves win.
8. Who are their allies?
Aesop said, "You're judged by the company you keep." Who are the sorts with whom your character kicks back? Who are his/her friends? How do they compliment your protagonist without being another version of your protagonist? How are they opposites? Why are they friends? What needs do they have that the other fills? How do these relationships change over the course of the film? They have to. They must be twisted, strained, and pushed to the breaking point. Sometimes, allies become enemies. Sometimes, allies remind protagonists of what they're fighting for. Regardless, as a film is the crisis point of your character's life, it must also represent, in extreme fashion, the crisis point of these relationships.
If you can answer these questions about your character, then you're much further along into telling us who they are, what motivates them, what actions they'll take, what they want, and why we want them to win it. In short, you'll be that much closer to a film. You can do it!