Written by Ali Laventhol
So much of our lives are spent pursuing goals, both the external kind—like finishing school or getting a job—and the internal kind like wrestling our insecurities or finding our voice. To create characters whom audiences will root for, the same must be true for them!
external and internal goals
External goals are connected to the concept of your movie. In NYAD, Diana wants to swim from Cuba to Florida, in OPPENHEIMER, the titular character is on a mission to create the atomic bomb, and in ANATOMY OF A FALL, Sandra sets out to clear her name.
But what about internal goals? Those can be trickier to craft.
Try looking to your main character’s flaw, which is preventing them from achieving the external goal in the first place, and see if you have a character who is taking steps to overcome it. For example, in NYAD, Diana is self-obsessed and doesn’t always listen to her experts’ advice. She wants to do things her way and that causes setbacks. Who calls her out on this? Who helps her see the err of her ways? Her dynamic catalyst character, Bonnie.
dynamic catalyst character
Your dynamic catalyst character is typically your second lead, but not always.
America Ferrara’s Gloria is the dynamic catalyst character in BARBIE instead of Ken because Gloria inspires Barbie to change more than Ken does. The dynamic catalyst is the character who causes your protagonist to arc and grow. They play a big part in your main character achieving their internal goal by overcoming their flaw. But it’s not only your characters who need to transform, the dynamic relationship itself needs to progress, too.
Diana and Bonnie’s relationship is in a much deeper place by the end of the movie because of the adventure they’ve been on together. The turns in their relationship also coincide with the turns in the plot—at the low point, for example, Diana is furthest away from her swimming goal, but she’s also had an estrangement with Bonnie. It’s a one-two punch. By aligning the dynamic relationship progression with plot events, your story will have more impact.
In another example, EMILY THE CRIMINAL could’ve just been about whether Emily was going to get away with her new criminal life and climb out of debt. But coupling the pursuit of that external goal with Emily’s progressing relationship with Yousef makes the movie much more compelling. Emily and Yousef begin as strangers and evolve into lovers and partners. They go through very clear stages. Same with Caleb and Ava in EX MACHINA. When they meet, he is a programmer tasked with studying her and she is the A.I. being studied. Their clinical relationship grows into friendship. Then, she begins to study him and eventually they move through a seduction phase into being co-conspirators.
Does the dynamic relationship in your movie progress through clear stages that feel organic and earned? If each one builds on the last, the progression will feel believable.
THE HOLDOVERS, for example, does this well. The movie centers on Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a crotchety ancient civilizations teacher at a boys’ boarding school, and one of the kids who is “holding over” on campus, Angus Tully. They can’t stand each other when the movie starts. In fact Hunham can’t stand any of the holdovers and is annoyed that he’s stuck babysitting them in the first place. But then, all the holdovers get picked up in one of the rich boy’s dad’s helicopters and flown off to ski. Now, Hunham and Tully are alone together—a new stage of their relationship.
They have a power struggle until Tully, while acting out, gets hurt and Hunham worries he will be blamed. When Tully lies for Hunham at the hospital to protect him, they soften toward each other. Another new phase.
In addition, Tully helps Hunham face his flaws. Hunham’s chosen a life of isolation on campus, having been a student there years ago, and he’s rude and condescending to the students yet somehow lives for his job. But by the end of the movie, Tully has gotten crotchety Hunham into the holiday spirit. He’s gotten him off campus and into the city of Boston, and they’ve moved into a beautiful surrogate father/son relationship where they’d each stick their neck out for one another.
By the time the other kids return after holiday break, Tully and Hunham’s relationship is in a completely different place and without giving too much away, it is the thing that propels Hunham into a brand new life.
If you want to learn more about dynamic relationship progression and how to build a successful one, check out Script Anatomy’s Feature classes!
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.