Character Engine Explanation

So, that first meeting was an interesting experiment that I know we’ll be able to perfect within a few meetings or less.  And I think one way we can perfect our execution is in developing our characters quickly and effectively so that we get simple characters, but also characters that work towards things that reveal a kind of truth about them and how they viewed the World and how that view has held them back from becoming the person they need to be.  

There’s obviously a million different ways to develop stories, but one thing that really helps Jon and I is developing character engines for all of our primary and secondary characters.  Of course, we’ll be short on time, so maybe we should just stick to the protagonist and antagonist for these meetups.

So, what do I mean by character engine?  To put it as succinctly as possible, it’s the dynamic relationship between your character’s weakness, need, and desire.  Let me de-construct that a little and start by defining these terms.

Weakness:  This is the thing that’s holding your character back and it’s usually two different weaknesses.  There’s the physical weakness, such as drug addiction, anger issues, laziness, etc.  These are things that physically harm them or others and it’s a physical expression of the second type of weakness:  The moral weakness.  The moral weakness is the viewpoint they have on life that holds them back.  Fear of failure or success, over-inflated sense of ego, yearning for acceptance, seeing the World as a dog-eat-dog environment, etc.  The moral weakness creates the physical weakness that harms those around them.  Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily have to be physically harmful but you know what I mean.

Desire:  This is the thing that your character desires, the thing they’re after.  It’s the gold medal or the loved one or the destination.  And how they go about getting that thing is what’s called the desire line and it’s this desire line that becomes the center of your story structure.  Your characters move along this desire line from point a to z, which essentially has ebbs and flows throughout the whole thing that give and take things away from your character as they journey onward to get the thing they desire…or not.  But here’s the problem.  They’re lying to themselves throughout the whole journey because they have to if they’re living with something that is making them weak.  They need to justify why that weakness isn’t a weakness that is holding them back.  And it’s this lie that causes them to fuck up constantly.  But, it’s the journey, itself, that teaches them about how their weakness is holding them back.  And all of this makes it possible for your character to discover their…

Need:  This is the thing your character actually needs, which will essentially destroy their weakness and allow them to move on and become better people and it’s revealed at the climax often times when the protagonist is defeating or in the process of being defeated by the antagonist, but of course you don’t even need an antagonist or a final fight scene.  You just need to build up to a moment where the character is tested to their limits and who ultimately come face-to-face with the thing that was holding them back so that they discover what they needed all along.  

All in all you have a moral  weakness, which is the viewpoint that is holding your character back and this is often manifested in the form of a physical weakness that hurts themselves or others like a drug addiction or anger issues.  Then, there’s the desire, which is the thing the character is after, which puts them on a path to do things that will challenge them but because of their weakness, they’re going to constantly mess up until they finally figure out what they need to do in order to get what they desire, which teaches them about what they need to do or believe in order to cure their weakness.  Doesn’t mean your characters succeed or even learn something.  It just means the audience learns something.

Let’s look at “Breaking Bad”, the show as an example.  

You have a character named Walter White who is quiet and walked over by friends and family.  He’s a teacher making nothing and his family struggles to pay the bills.  One day, he finds out he has lung cancer, and so he decides to make and distribute meth for millions of dollars.  

That’s the basic idea right?  So, lets apply a character engine to Walter White to see how this idea  can become the awesome show that it is.  Based on the idea we can identify the main character and his physical weakness (poor, lacking in self-respect).  Now, we don’t know what his moral weakness is and if you remember, the audience at the beginning of the story doesn’t know either.  It’s really towards the end that we discover why he has this physical weakness and that’s because if he knows his moral weakness, then he knows how to solve his problems and that’s the end of the story.  Instead, he constantly lies to himself saying that he needs to leave a legacy for his family.  He’s lying to himself to justify his physical weakness and his subsequent actions that he uses to cure his weakness.  He’s poor because he doesn’t have a legacy to leave for his family.  He’s weak because he doesn’t have a legacy to leave for his family.  

Now, we don’t know what his moral weakness is based on the premise just like the audience doesn’t at the beginning of the show, but we can come up with some possible answers as to why he is poor and weak.  His physical weakness is then the starting point for how we extrapolate the characters quickly and effectively.

So, let’s say we do what Vince Gilligan did and say that he’s poor and weak because he’s beaten down from a missed opportunity to become someone important who would be remembered and who would also have a legacy to leave for his family.  His moral weakness then, is that he feels regret for leaving the thing, which gave him purpose and a sense of relevance; a chance to be a leader of an empire.  He believes that life isn’t worth enjoying if you’re not important or meaningful to the World.  That’s his moral weakness or initial outlook on life and this is something he feels, but again, not revealed until later on.

Now, from this moral weakness we can develop some possible desires and this should be connected to the inciting incident, which is hinted at in the story idea above.  He finds out he’s dying and makes a moral decision to sell meth, so now we need to know why he desires to do this.  If his moral weakness is the fact that he believes that life cannot be enjoyed unless you’re relevant and important, which is outwardly expressed by his depression and inaction in life, then we can create logical steps that would allow him to justify selling meth.  Because the inciting incident requires him to confront this specific choice, we need to get him close to meth and of course, in the show they do this by not only making him a Chemistry teacher, but also the brother-in-law of a DEA agent, who by the way is the exact opposite of Walter White, which is a choice that allows the audience to better compare and contrast Walter with the rest of the World.  

So, we create the desire for him to create meth and make loads of money and he lies to himself by saying that the reason why he wants to do this is because he wants to leave a financial legacy for his family, which he believes will be the thing to cure his physical weakness since at this moment he cannot see his moral weakness, which is the real reason why he’s physically weak.  And all of this sets him on a journey to create a rotten empire that ultimately destroys his family and himself and through this journey he learns that he’s physically weak because he wanted to be someone relevant or important.  He wanted respect.  That’s why throughout the show he does all these terrible things because of his true need, which is to have a sense of purpose and relevance in the World.  His terminal illness, is the inciting incident, which compels him to confront these issues that he’s having and to try and solve them, but he’s broken so naturally he will make mistakes.

The beauty of character engines is that you can extrapolate everything you need from a simple idea and create boundaries for yourself because ultimately what you’re doing is creating a point to your content or as many like to call it, a “moral conversation”.  In the case of, “Breaking Bad” it’s a moral conversation about the choices we make before we die and how obsessing  over glory and purpose can lead to a destructive or productive path.  This is a conversation with multiple viewpoints and that’s ideally what you should achieve with your stories because no one likes a preacher, especially when it involves politics.  But everyone loves an engaging bar conversation with their friends when they discuss heavy topics about life.  That’s an environment where you can learn and grow and that’s the kind of stories that people really want.

But equally as important is the fact that when you establish a moral conversation from your character engines and the interactions that these engines have with each other you’re essentially creating boundaries for yourself to create.  The fascinating thing about stories is that there are an infinite number of ideas that are infinitely good and bad, which means we as writers have too many choices to make.  And I feel that’s the reason why our story kind of blew up the moment we got into the meat of it because we just had a premise and very basic character profiles that really just established their physical job in the story rather than genuine character engines.  So, that liberated us into making more choices, but because our choice range was virtually infinite, it made us very indecisive because it was difficult for us to find choices that worked well.  

Considering our time constraints I think we still did a great job, which is telling of the kind of talent we had in that room, but I think we can do better and get deeper with our stories and still make them short and simple.  Another beautiful thing about the character engine approach is the fact that you can literally make it as big or as small as you want.  “Breaking Bad” could have easily been a short or a feature length, but instead they stretched it to six seasons and they’re even of thinking of re-booting it and all of this is because the character engine of Walter White is so strong.  

But here’s the thing.  The shorter you make your story the more challenging it will be to supplant your character engine in the story because inevitably you need to unfold this for your audience.  But it can be done and we know this because we see it in award-winning shorts all the time.  And we don’t even have to make the engine complete, either.  Just by making half of the engine (the physical weakness and desire) you can give something for the audience to guess as to what they need to learn and leave the whole thing on a cliff-hanger if you want.  I think if we practice long enough, we can become good enough to where we can develop deep and enriching short stories quickly and effectively.  It’s complicated, for sure, but I definitely think it’s worth a shot, which is why if you look below this long convoluted explanation you’ll see a simple template we can use, which can combine steps 4 and 5, streamlining the whole process so that we can get to the outline quicker.  

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Character Name:

Protagonist or Antagonist:

Weakness:

Physical:

Moral:

Lie They Tell Themselves:

Desire:

Need:

Summary of Relationship Between Weakness, Desire, and Need:

Something They Would Say:  

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