Knowing a character’s backstory helps you write them consistently, but knowing what’s moving them in the here and now of a scene makes them really come to life.
I have to admit, I never write character biographies. I’ve often tried, using lists, charts and diagrams offered up by various screenwriting books and mentors, but I always find that there are only a few key items that really matter, and those are really only characterization. Things like level of education, social class, a character’s main frustration in life, that kind of thing. Because when it comes to writing the scene, I often find characters wants to do things I hadn’t anticipated. Which forces me to examine their immediate intention rather than analyze their history.
Intention: preparedness for action
The term intention, as it’s used by mindful awareness practitioners such as psychotherapist Daniel Siegel denotes a purposeful orientation of which you’re not necessarily aware but which you can easily bring into consciousness by reflection. An intention is an unconsciously generated state of preparedness, an anticipation of how to respond to other people’s actions or to circumstances as they pan out in real time. All based on lessons learned from experience. In terms of screenwriting, a character’s intention is what drives them to behave in a particular way in a specific situation, based on how they unconsciously expect the immediate situation and their own actions, to unfold. This is not the same as a character’s “want” or “need,” as these are more longer-term, goal-oriented traits.
What a character wants
What the main character in a screenplay wants, is to solve a specific problem. Or put differently, to achieve a specific goal. The character is aware of what the problem is. Depending on the genre, the goal is normally a concrete objective, such as to escape from captivity, to obtain an object or money, to win someone’s love, to save someone or something, etc.. The story is then the account of the various ways the character goes about trying to solve the problem, and the obstacles they encounter along the way.
What a character needs
What the character needs is more abstract, and takes us into more murky, psychological waters. Usually, what the character needs is something they only become aware of during the course of the story. Although they may think they know what they need to begin with. This is the stuff of the character arc, the (moral) lesson the character learns by the end of the story.
What the character’s intention is
The character’s intention is a kind of intermediate phenomenon, a purposeful focus that sits somewhere in between an unconscious psychological need and a conscious, concrete goal. As long as the character is unaware of their own intention, their behaviour is dictated by habit and they react automatically. If the character is aware of their intention, they are free to act on it or not, but this then becomes a choice. Or in terms of drama: the character experiences a conflict, a dilemma. It’s usually another character who, deliberately or otherwise, points out to the main character what their intention is. This may be an attempt by an enemy to undermine the main character, but it could also be a friend trying to help them by showing them what they’re really up to.
Why intention is more important in a scene than biography
The old-school Freudian model, which posits that individuals are slaves to their past, can lead to a reductive, over-simplified view of individuals, where behaviour in the here and now is always a reflection of some unresolved personal problem in the past. In that context, as long as the screenwriter knows the character’s backstory, they can always point to it and reassure everyone from script readers to studio heads by explaining: That’s why the character behaves the way he does. Very neat, clinical, and unequivocal. But human beings and the decisions they take are far more complex than that. So what matters more than where a character went to school or whether they like broccoli (assuming these details aren’t crucial to the plot), is what the character’s intention is in the scene. That’s what determines their emotions and so their actions and speech. This can’t be surgically separated from the larger, overall picture of who the character is and what aspect of their life is driving the narrative, but it is a distinct phenomenon.
Paying attention to intention
Intention is a funny thing. If you pay specific attention to your own intention in various situations, you might be surprised as to how much less you are consciously “in control” of yourself than you imagined. Your mind is constantly taking stock of events as they happen and formulating intentions concerning what to do next. The same goes for characters in a screenplay. Sometimes it’s more productive to ask what a character’s intention is in a given scene, than to ask why they’re behaving in a particular way. The “why” question automatically generates an analytical, logical answer, but the “intention” question opens up possibilities.