It’s pretty clear by now that there are like a zillion ways to create a character. I’ve already written about Robert McKee and how he thinks that contradictions create dimensions in a character; and about the weaknesses and needs that according to John Truby make a good protagonist.
Now it’s time to see what method Syd Field uses to create a character. According to him, a fictional character needs to have four essential elements:
- Dramatic need
- Point of view
It’s the goal of the protagonist. The object that he is pursuing, the enemy he wants to defeat, the love interest he wants to win over, the destination of his journey, those are all dramatic needs.
The dramatic need drives the story forward and gives the protagonist a reason to fight. The dramatic need might change during the course of the story, usually the change corresponds to the end of an act: the protagonist wants A during act 1, then he wants B during act 2, and finally, he wants C in act 3.
For example: in The lion king, Simba’s first desire is to become king. When Mufasa is killed (inciting incident), he doesn’t want to be king anymore because his goal now is to escape his old life and forget the past. In act 3, when he comes back home, he wants to defeat Scar and take his place as the rightful king.
Without a dramatic need, it’s impossible to create a character. Because without this element the protagonist (or any other character) would not be compelled to take action.
Point of view
The point of view is the way the character perceives the world around him. This perception is formed by all the experiences that the character has had in the past and how those experiences have shaped his conscience.
A religion, a political party, a frenetic or a calm lifestyle, these are all points of view. This element is important when it comes to conflict: opposite points of view are usually the reason why two characters are at odds with each other.
In season 1, the villain Amon believes that the world would be better if all the people were equal and there were no benders (people with the power to manipulate one of the elements). While Korra believes that as long as benders use their abilities responsibly, there is no need to take away their powers.
The point of view is essential to create a character. Without it, all the characters would just be made of quirks and none of them would even resemble a human being.
It’s a more “specific” version of the point of view. The attitude expresses a character’s opinion on a specific matter through his behavior. Basically, rather than being a judgment of the entire world, life, or other important but abstract concepts, the attitude focuses on more common practical matters.
For example: the first time the two protagonists meet in When Harry met Sally they both state their opinions about the friendship between a man and a woman. This way they are stating their point of view: Harry thinks it’s impossible because attraction would get in the way, Sally thinks that it is possible.
Later, Harry expresses his attitude when he tries to hit on Sally, and she expresses hers by rejecting him. This is the physical manifestation of their point of view.
The attitude exists because, even though a character can state his point of view in words, it’s always better to demonstrate your character’s beliefs through action.
A character doesn’t always need to change. In many stories, the protagonist is the same both at the end and at the beginning. But if this is the case, usually another character undergoes some kind of change in his place.
This element is important however because it helps the audience understand the theme that the writer is trying to communicate. Usually, a character‘s ideas or personality are A at the beginning of the movie, and after he has faced a great number of challenges and choices, his personality will become B at the end.
For example: in Black Panther T’Challa’s beliefs and worldview are changed because Killmonger forces him into making various choices and overcome obstacles. At the beginning he believes that his nation should stay hidden from the world, in the end, he takes the first step to make Wakanda become part of the world.
Change highlights the true nature of a character, that’s what makes the story memorable and the choices that were made important.
When we meet Diana she is fixated on becoming worthy of the Godkiller that Zeus had left. She wants to be trained so that she can be strong enough to defend humanity against Ares. This is the dramatic need for act 1.
One day she rescues Steve Trevor, a pilot, from a plane crash (inciting incident). When she learns about the war her desire to leave the island and defeat Ares gets even stronger. So much that she almost disobeys her mother.
During act 2 her dramatic need slightly changes. She still wants to defeat Ares, but not because she wants to prove to be the right person to use the Godkiller, but rather because she doesn’t want to see the victims of the war suffer anymore.
The second act ends when she kills Ludendorff (who she thinks is Ares). This is the moment when Diana seems to lose hope and almost abandons her quest because she realizes that humanity will keep fighting and killing even without Ares’ help. Here her dramatic need is at the weakest point because she doesn’t desire to defeat Ares as much as before.
When the third act starts, Steve’s sacrifice helps Diana regain faith in humanity and hope. Now her dramatic need is changed again: she doesn’t believe that defeating Ares will stop the war, but she wants to do it anyway because her goal now is to save mankind from evil.
The final dramatic need is especially important because that is what links the movie version of Wonder Woman to all her previous incarnations: a superhero/goddess who fights evil to protect humanity.
Point of view
Diana’s point of view is pretty straightforward: Amazons like her hold more power than humans, that’s why they have the duty to protect mankind. This belief was established at the beginning of the movie when Diana hears the story of Ares and the Godkiller. She learns that she has a power and that this power must be used to protect the ones who are weaker.
But what I’ve found interesting in Wonder Woman is that this point of view is put into question by the atrocities that Diana witnesses during the war. All the death, all the suffering and all the trauma that humans are going through are not inflicted by a generic un-human evil, but by other humans.
Thanks to her experience during the war, for the first time in her life, Diana is asking herself the question: “Are humans worth of protection?”.
Through Diana’s actions, we understand her conflicting feelings about violence: she wants to end the violence that is perpetrated by powerful people to the expenses of the weak, but the only way to stop this, is to use violence herself.
Throughout the movie we see Diana being conflicted more than once about this dilemma: inaction vs action.
For example: when Steve tells her that they can’t cross the no man’s land she has to choose between helping the people on her side and take action or leaving with Steve and the others and staying neutral. This time she chooses to act.
During the scene at the ball, she has to choose between acting by killing Ludendorff or not acting by letting him leave. This time she chooses not to act.
Seeing the world through the eyes of a (fictional) goddess that has never been tempted by greed, envy or ambition, allows the audience as well to question the nature of war and the reason why we as humans can’t seem to avoid it.
When Diana kills Ludendorff she is forced to put into question her purpose in life (dramatic question), what she believed and the Amazons had taught her (point of view), and her actions up to this point (attitude).
Here, when she is at her lowest point, when she is forced to reevaluate her beliefs and actions, the change happens. She accepts the fact that there is evil in mankind but realizes that the good in humanity is something worth fighting for.
So now she doesn’t fight because Zeus gave her this task. Nor because she thinks that a few punches will solve war. She understands that she can’t take evil away from the world but what she can do is use her powers to make a difference.
Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman possesses all the 4 essential elements needed to create a character, and maybe that’s the reason why she became such a beloved superhero in such a short time.