There are many ways to “break down” a character, and figuring out which paradigm is most useful to you can be difficult.
Some highlight inconsistencies, leading to complex characters. Others highlight a character’s relationship to theme, aiding a rich story. And some simply help clarify a character’s deepest want, giving voice to possible plot options.
One of the best ways to understand how to view characters is to examine really great ones, like Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) from Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.
If you want to review the plot of the film, take a look at this Plot Point Breakdown of Promising Young Woman.
Let’s take a look at how Cassandra is introduced to the audience.
That was the first time we see her, but a few pages later (after a successful night of vengeance) she receives a second introduction.
Paradigms of Character
Want, Need, Belief
Identifying a character’s main want, along with their main need, juxtaposed against their core belief can highlight where a character has room to grow (or not grow).
Cassandra wants to deliver vengeance to those who were participatory in the rape of her friend Nina.
Cassandra needs to experience life outside her mission.
Cassandra believes that there is nothing more important than avenging Nina.
You can see this wonderfully explored in the scene where Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon) implores Cassandra to not let the anger of what happened to Nina define her life. If Cassandra doesn’t change her belief, she won’t grow to meet her need.
Identifying two desires that the plot puts at odds can be a nice way of characterizing internal struggle.
Cassandra desires vengeance for participants of rape and rape culture, but she also desires a relationship with Ryan.
When Madison (Alison Brie) returns to Cassandra with footage of the incident, Cassandra discovers Ryan’s voice on the recording and we can see the internal dilemma. The crux of the film rests on which desire Cassandra will give priority to. Who will she ultimately become?
Take a look at these storylines on the Arc View. Notice how they diverge heading into the midpoint, showing Cassandra’s inner conflict. And notice which one “wins” out.
Distilling a character’s worldview can nicely pinpoint that character’s relationship to the theme. Identifying the theme, and using a fill-in-the-blank for what a character thinks about it. This worldview may be subconscious, and the character themselves may outwardly define it differently. This is about what they really believe.
I use this template when doing this for my characters.
Character: “theme” is _____
Cassandra: Rape culture is a terrible thing that must be addressed before any other aspect of life.
I always find this most helpful when looking at other character’s worldviews in juxtaposition, to see where similarities and differences occur.
Mrs. Fisher: Rape culture is a terrible thing, but you can’t let your justified anger over it take over your life.
Al Monroe: Rape culture is something that can ruin a man’s reputation.
Additionally, this can be done for multiple themes and ideas running through a story. There isn’t just one thing that characters have opinions about.
Goal vs Flaw
Clearly labeling a character’s goal, while also articulating a flaw that will inherently keep them from that goal
- Goal: Take down everyone participatory in Nina’s rape.
- Flaw: Unwilling to grow beyond a dangerous lifestyle.
This one is fascinating in the case of Promising Young Woman, as you could argue that Cassandra achieves her goal, though it comes at the expense of her life, which is what she was willing to “trade” so that she didn’t have to overcome her flaw. I find adding a “why” to the goal can help showcase where the flaw will be most at odds with the goal.
- Goal: Take down everyone participatory in Nina’s rape in order to forgive her guilt and ease her anger.
- Flaw: Vengeance does not assuage guilt or anger.
The idea of masks is helpful to think about how the character presents and sees themselves. I like to think in terms of at least three (Presented, Conscious and Subconscious).
- Presented Mask: Vulnerable woman, disaffected stripper
- Conscious Mask: Unflinching avenger
- Subconscious Mask: Angry and broken human
This is a particularly useful paradigm in the case of Promising Young Woman, as the premise is built on Cassie presenting a mask to others to lure them.
Presented masks are the most malleable and may change throughout a story, even from scene to scene. I find the relationship between the Conscious Mask and Subconscious Mask useful in identifying a character’s arc, as self-awareness is usually a big part of most arcs.
Objectives and Superobjectives
I’ve also heard this one explained as “explicit goal” and “implicit goal,” and it can help extrapolate a character outside the context of the story. The objective is about what they want in this story, while a superobjective is about what they will always want in all stories.
- Objective: Take down everyone participatory in Al Monroe’s attack on Nina
- Superobjective: A world without perpetrators of rape culture
I actually don’t find this particularly useful in this case, as part of Cassandra’s problem is that she somewhat misidentifies the motivations for her actions.
Characterization vs Character
Popularized by Robert McKee in Story, this concept is similar to Masks, but more about the overall perception we may have about a character, and who they really are beneath that perception. McKee contends that the wider the gap between these expectations, the more interesting a character may be.
- Characterization: Promising young woman
- Character: a woman unable to overcome her obsession with vengeance
Promising Young Woman has a bonus characterization of “vulnerable woman” because it’s how Cassandra presents herself to the world in certain situations.
Character In Practice
If you wanted to take notes on character directly in your document, in something like Arc Studio Pro’s Character panel, what might you write?
I recommend a mix of information, depending on what’s needed for the character. For the protagonist, I’ll try to capture their internal struggle. For supporting characters, I might note the way they affect the protagonist. And for more tertiary characters, perhaps the worldviews they’re bringing to the table thematically. For Promising Young Woman it might look something like this.
And since it’s available, I might also throw some images to keep the visuals fresh. In the case of Promising Young Woman, I can actually use stills from the film.
A Note On Character Analysis
To get epistemological for a bit, just as it is for real people, it is impossible to actually know what a character wants, needs, believes, desires, thinks about themselves, etc. Analysis after the fact is inferred from their actions and statements and does not provide THE answers, but possible answers that illuminate a character’s inner life.