(SPOILERS: Star Wars, Gravity, Liar Liar, The Godfather, Die Hard, Young Adult, Dallas Buyers Club)
When I was just starting out, one of the common questions I was asked by development executives and producers was, “Why this character for this story?” At first I didn’t understand the question and so probably didn’t answer it very well. Why is Luke Skywalker the hero of Star Wars (written by George Lucas)? Because he bought the droids that everyone was looking for, of course. Why is Ryan Stone the main character in Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron)? Because she survived the shuttle that was destroyed – who else would we follow?
But the question isn’t really about plot logic. It’s about theme. We just don’t use the word “theme” in the movie business very often!
The question would perhaps be better phrased, “Why is this the most interesting character for this story to happen to?” And the answer should relate to how the story affects the character. Most stories should change the character in some important way – otherwise, why do I care what happens?
Usually good stories teach the character something they need to know, or change them in a way that they need to be changed. For example, in Liar Liar (written by Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur), Fletcher being forced to tell the truth helps him build a better relationship to his son.
In some darker stories the character is changed for the worse – or in a way that is ambiguous as to whether it is positive or not. This is tricky to pull off, but can be done effectively if the story calls for it. In The Godfather (written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), Michael starts as the war hero who is going to be the first in the family to gain power through legitimate means. But the events of the story turn him instead into a ruthless Mafia kingpin. It’s a change for the worse, and it relates to the story’s themes of the inescapable world of the Mafia family and the consequences of vengeance.
Even more rare is a character that does not change at all. Every once in a while you can get away with that in a survival type of story by giving us a character we like and putting them in a life or death situation. We will care whether they survive, even if they don’t learn anything along the way. However, the story will be surface and shallow – entertaining, perhaps, but with little to say about the human condition.
Usually, though, even stories ostensibly about survival change the character. Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) is about a cop trying to save his wife (and other hostages) from a brilliant, murderous criminal and his henchmen. But in the process the main character also saves his marriage, because the experience teaches him to value his wife more.
Another exception is a story where the character doesn't change because the writer is trying to make a statement on the nature of the character or the nature of life. But in these cases there needs to be the threat of change, which the character then rejects.
Young Adult (written by Diablo Cody) works this way – the main character goes through a story where she starts to question her motives and lifestyle, only to decide there’s nothing wrong with her after all, finally returning to her miserable life unchanged. This makes a statement about this character’s nature, though it also makes the character pretty unlikeable – and the movie was not very successful, perhaps partly for that reason.
In most stories, however, the character is changed in some way for the better. If the story doesn’t teach the character or change them in a positive way, then it should be because you are intentionally making some kind of point about the character or the nature of life.
Let’s return to Star Wars and Gravity. How do those stories change their respective main characters? In Star Wars, Luke wants to go join the rebellion and have adventures. But he needs to learn maturity and self-discipline (dramatized by his mastering of the force). In Gravity, Ryan wants to get back to Earth, but to do so she has to overcome her fear and self-doubt and decide that she truly wants to live.
Notice I’m using the terms “want” and “need.” This is how I like to define characters in relation to their Notice I’m using the terms “want” and “need.” This is how I like to define characters in relation to their internal and external journeys. They want something external that drives the plot, while they need something internal that drives the character arc.
Really, picking the right character for your story is also about stakes. There are obvious external stakes in Star Wars – the freedom of the galaxy – and in Gravity – Ryan’s life – but there are also internal stakes for the character. How the story comes out will impact who they are as people. This heightens the importance of the story.
In Dallas Buyers Club (written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack) the obvious stakes for Ron Woodruff is his life. AIDS threatens it, and pursuing untested drugs might prolong it. But Ron also goes on an internal journey from a selfish, self-destructive, hate-filled individual to someone who achieves meaning in his life by helping others.
Imagine how the movie would be different if Ron was a good, honorable, kind person at the beginning of the story. His ultimate death would be tragic. We might learn something about the AIDS crisis and how the medical establishment responded to it, but Ron’s death itself might seem kind of meaningless. However, because the story caused him to become a better person, it ultimately seems like an uplifting movie, even though the main character ultimately dies. Perhaps counter-intuitively, starting with a hugely flawed character makes the story more satisfying and happy! That's why Ron is the right character for that story.
Beware of the story that happens to someone just because they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Random things happen to people in real life, but in fiction there should be thematic purpose to why this character is in this story. Even if the character does encounter a random event, on a thematic level it should have personal relevance to them.