Monthly Archives: June 2023

Emotions, Attitudes and Values in Characters

Emotions, Attitudes and Values in 300
Emotions, Attitudes and Values in 300

There are many skills that go into writing authentic, colourful characters. Having a handle on their emotions, attitudes and values is certainly one of them.

Attitudes: In 300, Sparta’s fierce and unyielding defiance stems from its sense of independence and its belief in its fighting ability. It is personified through King Leonidas’ response to the gauntlet thrown at his feet by the Persian envoy who demands that earth and water be offered by King Leonidas as a token of submission to the God-King Xerxes. Sparta can then be allowed to continue as a puppet state, or face annihilation. Leonidas’ response is: ‘This is Sparta’. It succinctly encapsulates Sparta’s attitude of confidence and defiance. The result? Leonidas plunges the messenger to his death, which initiates the war with Xerxes.

Values: Values are the deep infrastructure residing within the character’s core. They form the foundation of the character’s moral and motivational hierarchy. Values spawn ideology, sustain belief, initiate action and mould behaviour.

“‘Imbuing your characters with emotions, attitudes and values will help grant them a sense of verisimilitude.”

Staying with our 300 example, we find Queen Gorco echoing the importance that Sparta places on courage and strength in service of the community, even when facing the insurmountable odds of the Persian army under the command of Xerxes. The Queen tells her husband who is leading 300 warriors to the Hot Gates to block the invaders to ‘come back with his shield or on it’—in other words, to die protecting his people, if needs be. Self-sacrifice in service of the wider good is seen as a paramount Spartan value.

Emotions: Before taking the final decision to kill the messenger and, in effect, declare war on Xerxes, Leonidas seems to hesitate, contemplating the hell that is to be unleashed on the people of his tiny kingdom. He turns to his wife as if to seek confirmation that he is doing the right thing. She offers him the slightest of nods—no need for words here. It is a touching moment, filled with subtle emotion as befitting a warrior nation, where the King of Sparta seeks and gets the approval of his queen before plunging Sparta into war.


Humans are complex. Instill emotions, attitudes and values in your characters to increase their verisimilitude and effectiveness.

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The explanatory power of need in stories.

In the film Tootsie Michael Dorsey‘s ‘need” manifests in his actions.

What is the difference between a character’s want and need?

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger explains that one’s ‘want’ is related to the outer goal in the story—what the character thinks s/he has to achieve in order to solve a problem: get the girl, or the job, and the like. One’s ‘need’, however, is typically hidden from the character. It is revealed only late in the developmental arc as a result of the characters having learnt a series of lessons about themselves, and the world, through life’s hard knocks. 

We as writers, however, have to know how to work with this hidden need on behalf of our characters. We have to know how to work with the subtext—with what is suppressed, left unsaid, with emotions of guilt, shame or regret. These are the generators of depth and resonance in our stories. Without them we have only plot. With them we have in-depth characters whose psychological motivation rings true.

“Without an acknowledgement of need, characters are unable to complete their character arcs and achieve their story goals.”

Tootsie’s Michael Dorsey, for example, does not, at first, realise that he needs to be less difficult, more sensitive to others in order to achieve his outer goals as an actor. He does not realise that his insistence on ‘perfection’, his obsessive disagreeableness and fussiness stems from his own insecurities. It is only when he adopts the disguise of a woman in order to procure a television soapie role, a disguise so convincing that he is subjected to the sort of insensitivity and sexism he has inflicted on others, that he realises that his need is to be a better man. It is only then that Michael can accomplish his external goals—his desire for Julie, his need for work, his desire to maintain his friendship with Sandy. The accomplished writer understands this about his character(s) and implements this knowledge. It is a skill well worth emulating.


A character’s acknowledgment of ‘need’ comes late in the story and results in an adjustment of the story goal.

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Turning point versus twist — what’s the difference?

The twist in The Sixth Sense
The twist in The Sixth Sense

Stories depend on twists and turns to deliver their content in an engaging way. But what’s the difference between a turning point and a twist? Let’s look into it.

In her book Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seeger gives us six attributes that define a turning point: 1. Turns the action in a new direction. 2. Ushers us into a new arena and a new focus for the action. 3. The protagonist makes a new decision or commitment . 4. Raises the central question again. 5. Ups the stakes. 6. Propels the story into the next act.

Seger states that the turning point is not a surprise although how it is executed may be. That’s because the turning point has been prepared for—through the inciting incident for example, or other foreshadowing elements.

In Dead Poet’s Society the boys going to the cave has been prepared for by earlier scenes: The boys discover John Keating’s Year Book and ask him about it. Keating mentions that the cave was where the dead poet’s society used to meet. This sets up the context for Act II and the resulting conflict between creativity versus conformity, the theme of the story, that is to be unleashed. The cave scene, then, leads the story in a new but not unexpected direction.

“A turning point steers the story in a new direction, usually prepared for earlier. A twists uncovers a gut-wrenching emotion through exposing a secret that has the penny drop.”

The twist by contrast differs from the turning point in these ways: Twists are almost always rooted in secrets. Specifically, the twist is an action or event which reveals that things are not what everyone thought them to be. It is the moment when the penny drops—the moment in The Sixth Sense, when Malcolm Crowe realises that he is dead, the moment when a puzzle is suddenly solved as in Chinatown when Evelyn Mulvaney gives up of her shameful secret that Katherine Cross is both her daughter and her sister as a result of her father’s incestuous acts with her. Her shocking revelation explains Evelyn’s obfuscating behaviour, her seeming lies, her stutter upon the mention of the word ‘father’, and the like.

Here’s what you need to know about writing secrets and have them drive your twists: 1. What is the purpose of the secret? 2. Whose secret is it? 3. Who is unaware of the secret? 4. When should the secret be revealed? 5. To whom is the secret first revealed, and why?

Typically, then, the twist may occur near a turning point in a story, but it’s most important differentiation from the turning point is that it delivers a gut-wrenching emotion, couched in past secrets, that sheds light upon hitherto unexplained action.


Turning points steer the action in new directions prepared for earlier. Twists expose secrets and create powerful emotions through surprise.

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How to use theme to drive your story.

How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.
How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger reminds us that one of the many ways a writer expresses the theme of a story is through an either-or-statement. She provides several examples, but let’s look at one in particular nested in one of my most favourite films!

In Dead Poet’s Society the theme is conformity versus creativity. This clash is expressed through the characters battling over their beliefs. More importantly, exploring the theme through conflict lays bare the consequences of each belief system.

The principal of the school represents steadfast tradition, which is not wrong in itself, until it collides with the creative spirit and tries to crush it. Todd (Ethan Hawke), on the other hand, is transformed by the creative spirit at the end of the film. He has literally learnt to stand up for what he believes in. The unforgettable line, “Oh, Captain my Captain” is his stirring and rebellious affirmation of the open-minded creativity represented by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Ultimately, Mr. Keating’s plea to his students is to keep examining the world from different perspectives in order to flourish as people and artists.

“The theme of the story is what shapes its characters, actions and events. It is the story’s meaning.”

Opposing the value of creativity, Charlie (Gale Hansen) represents the sort of person who thinks creativity promotes chaos. He can’t admit that balance is perhaps the way to allow both sides to flourish. The result is reflected in Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) who tragically can’t sustain his creativity against the overwhelming weight of his father’s wish that he become a doctor. The result? He commits suicide in hopeless despair.

The film explores the theme of conformity versus creativity by encasing it inside separate characters whose views and choices result in specific outcomes. Perhaps the lesson here is that an accommodation ought to be sought between binary beliefs. Mr. Keating is an example of how to navigate these seemingly incompatible poles: He is a creative soul who does not reject the value of tradition out of hand, providing it does not become an obstacle to one’s hopes and dreams.


The theme of a story is the point of the tale and is embodied in the actions and character of the players that people it.

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