Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:

The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.

“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.

One thought on “Building Characters in Seven Steps

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting article. I once heard that writing a story is like a Great White shark. If you don’t move forward you will drown. In fiction you as the writer make the rules which means you can take liberties. This is perhaps why super hero movies are so popular with the public – The audience knows that what they are watching is a fabrication thus they understand that anything goes as they do with all work based on fiction. We can forgive the writer because fiction after all is not real life. However how do you take liberties on a story that is inspired on real life events. Applying a model (like the one mentioned in this article) is all well and good . However by doing so you risk turning your narrative into smear campaign against those that you are antagonizing. A movie like Breve heart is a great narrative with rich characters and great villains. However the film also has an infamous reputation for it’s historical inaccuracy and it’s association to English Xenophobia. William Wallace himself becomes a fabrication just like any knight in a kingdom far away. It takes a very talented story teller to do real life events justice. Martin Scorsese is the master of telling stories based on fact. The events in The Irish men is one such example. No one knows what really happened to jimmy Hoffa . But because Scorsese is able to give context in a believable way we can accept that what’s being shown to the audience is not a complete fabrication.

    In short : Telling a story is one thing. However taking liberties that moves away from the source martial ( to advance the narrative) could determine the believability and more importantly credibility of your story.


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