Make your character more compelling by giving them a single, overriding desire (or the ‘I want’ song)

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Kurt Vonnegut

“You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?” South Pacific

Most scripts fall flat because most characters are flat. They don’t want anything. Desire is a powerful tool that we instantly relate to.  If I see a kid walking down the street, who cares? If I see that kid looking longingly at a $6,000 motorcycle, I get him.


In most American musicals, the hero is a little guy (or girl) who doesn’t amount to much right now, but dreams of a brighter future. Usually, they do this with an “I Want” Song, where they sing of how this little town is too small and they know there’s a great big world out there for them. This is always so the audience can identify with them. Because the hero, just like you, isn’t a movie star or a princess or anybody else officially special, but is really special deep down if they try, and (unlike those conformist drones around you) wants to try. The lyric to the song may well include the actual words “I want” or some variant thereof to hammer the point home. – TV TROPES

The problem with most first acts is that I don’t get a clear sense of what the rooting interest is. I don’t get the main characters deal, and he doesn’t have a clear cut want. A lot of times, the author hasn’t seen fit to give him one.

So try this – write an I Want Song as if he’s a character in a Disney Musical. This probably won’t be very good song, because we’re mostly screenwriters, not song writers. Please god, don’t put this song in your script. But write the song, then make sure the first ten pages communicate that want as clearly and charismatically as if you were Alan Mencken and this was a showstopping number in an animated feature.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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