Unfortunately, life is rarely easy and stress-free. While moments of pure relaxation and ease occur on a semi-regular basis for most people, the presence of stress makes itself known in a wide variety of ways. In terms of screenwriting character development and analysis, stress must carry substantial weight in dialogue formation and action sequences. As a screenwriter, approach each character as if you were getting to truly know someone. Doing so opens the window into unflattering personality traits and true realism. Remember, a character is “real;” therefore, he must showcase feelings and stresses like all people do.
Identifying the top three stresses (daily, life, work, social, etc.) clarifies not only current head space, but elements that truly influence his daily life. I’ve found exploring the stresses a character must deal with, and clearly outlining them as if they were as familiar as your own, establishes a relationship between the screenwriter and the character.
Determining Stress Factors
What foundation of stress is highly individualized and unique. While blanket stresses, such as work or school, are easily identifiable and simple to write, they are boring and surface-level. Even if the major source of stress comes from their job, the internal conversation that supports and allows this stress to exist oftentimes has very little to do with the surface reason. As a screenwriter, you must uncover this for all major characters.
Break down the primary (or surface-level) stress to understand the true fuel for this internal fire. For example, Jim Carey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” immediately comes across as stressed. His pale complexion is highlighted by worry-filled eyes. While he seemed simply unhappy with his life (which is very stressful), audiences were graced with a deeper view into these elements as the story progressed. The three stress factors within this life were: (1) the thrilling/volatile relationship he had with Kate Winlet’s character, Clementine. (2) Regretting his decision to have memory of Clementine erased. (3) Overcoming emotional pitfalls from his previous relationship.
Is It Always Serious?
The answer to this question is simply, no. Because a character is stressed doesn’t mean that the source of the stress is detrimental to a large degree. Moreover, the root of stress isn’t always because of a malfunction in personality elements.
Although the scope of many characters in almost every genre are based in seriousness, it doesn’t mean this is the only way of showcasing character stress.
For example, in the raunchy comedy “Smiley Face,” Anna Farris plays a character who accidentally eats all her roommates brownies, which so happened to be laced with marijuana. Ignoring the note placed on the brownies, she consumes them all. The rest of the film deals with the stress of having to replace the brownies before her roommate comes home.
The primary objective and story plot is based off stress that while is intense and real for the character, is lighthearted and silly in reality. I find this film to be an excellent example of humorous stress.