VIDEO – What’s The Itch Your Character Can’t Scratch?

What’s The Itch Your Character Can’t Scratch? 

By Jacob Krueger

In his recent TED talk (above) Andrew Stanton, Academy Award winning screenwriter of WALL-E, TOY STORY and countless other Pixar movies, spoke about the powerful forces that make us care about a character. Stanton describes this as the character’s spine, a singular subconscious need—an itch they can’t scratch—which drives every action they take in the story:  Michael Corleone’s need to please his father in The Godfather.  Woody’s need to do the right thing for his child in Toy Story.  Wall-E’s need to find the beauty in Wall-E. When you understand the itch your character can’t scratch, you understand the real root of all structure.  You know how to make choices about your screenplay, to make the moments of your plot connect and take on meaning, to make things matter, and to make us care.

So how do you discover that spine of your character?  That itch your character can’t scratch? 

The great acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, called this spine the character’s Superobjective:  that single, unifying drive that propels a character forward through every moment of the story. Stanislavki’s goal, like ours as writers, was to create characters that an audience could truly believe in.   That meant that performance had to be more than simply presentation, skill, and style.  It had to grow from something real in the actor.  Otherwise it was going to feel as fake as it actually was, no matter how great the actor’s talent in performing it. Stanislavski forced his actors forget about the audience, and instead to draw their focus inwards, building their characters from real memories and real needs that drove them in their daily lives.  To stop presenting their characters for the audience’s benefit, and start actually living them in the scene. The Method, which grew from Stanislavski’s teaching, gave rise to some of the most memorable characters in history:  performances by great actors like Meryl Streep, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis. And understanding how it relates to you as a writer can be the difference between writing characters we can care about as if they lived and breathed, and those who seem as thin as the paper that they’re written on.

Just as actors must draw from something real in themselves to create believable characters in performance, so too must writers reach into their own emotions, to find the spine of their characters and bring them to life on the page.

And just as actors must learn to differentiate between the tools of stagecraft, and the art of creating a character, so too must writers learn to differentiate between the art of creating a character and a story you can believe in, and the tools of craft used to translate that story to the audience. Your characters, and the stories you need to tell, grow from something deep, real, and powerful in you: an inescapable emotional need that drives you at every moment of every day.  Connect to that need, and you’ll not only discover a spine for your character, but for the entire structure of your screenplay.   Ignore it, and you’ll find yourself lost in the wilderness, faking your way through your story, rather than really writing it.

And the results will feel something like Keanu Reeves playing Hamlet.  No matter how much craft you apply to it.

In my screenwriting classes, we learn to write characters we can believe in, by connecting their Superobjectives with our own Emotional Needs— the itch we can’t scratch that we share with our character, that forces us to the page, and carries us through the writing of our screenplays. This process starts by letting go of our need to “perform” for the audience, and releasing ourselves, just for a moment, from the formulas, plot devices, and countless external elements of craft that allow us to fake our way through our scripts, rather than actually writing them. Having let all that go (and knowing we can return to it later), we learn to draw our attention inward, to identify the Emotional Needs that are in priority for us, and to share them with our characters.

We seek the itches we can’t scratch, and the itches our characters can’t scratch.

Sometimes we can name these Emotional Needs with words, and sometimes we can just feel them.  But once we make that connection, and figure out that one thing that truly drives the character, structure starts to grow naturally. We know now where to attack the character, how to build the shape of her journey, the movements she’ll need to go through, and the things she truly values.  We’ll know how to hurt her deeply, or reward her greatly. Because we are building from an Emotional Need we feel so deeply in ourselves, we can depend on it keep us rooted to the truth of our story, to keep us going when we don’t know what happens next, or we don’t want write, and to be the North Star by which we can navigate when we’re lost deep in our structure, and need to figure out what truly matters in our story. At this point, we can begin to apply the craft we need to tell our story in the most compelling way possible for our audience, without worrying about getting confounded by our own smoke and mirrors, or getting lost in the thousands of choices we need to make on every page. Your character’s Emotional Need is your Need, and the spine of her journey is your journey—a journey told in fiction, but rooted in truth. And when you’re telling the truth, you can’t get lost.


  1. Jenn 10 years ago

    Thank you so much!

  2. Oliver 10 years ago

    Great Ted Talk! Great Advice!

  3. Jay Baer 10 years ago

    Great info. Looking forward to godfather class in Nov.

  4. Andy Cheng 10 years ago

    Great insight connecting character method of acting and screen writing! Thanks for sharing! All the best with Sandy and be well!

  5. Kim 10 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this talk. I had a hunch that you could use method acting insights for writing, but this confirms it, and being passionate and a little pigheaded is not a bad thing either.

    • Jacob Krueger 10 years ago

      So glad you enjoyed Kim! Yes, there is much to be learned from method acting– as well as other acting methods like viewpoints, improv etc– when approaching a screenplay. Are you an actor?

  6. BobWhatAbout 9 years ago

    Love this!

  7. LastDarcy 5 years ago

    I have noticed you don’t monetize your website, don’t waste
    your traffic, you can earn additional bucks every month because you’ve got high quality content.
    If you want to know how to make extra money, search for:
    Mertiso’s tips best adsense alternative

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Call: 917.464.3594

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

© 2014 - 2023 Jacob Krueger Studio, LLC | Privacy & Terms of Use

Welcom Back!

Log in to access your account

Our website uses cookies to provide a better user experience. By using our site, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn more about cookies and how you can refuse them.

Your seminar link is on its way to your inbox.

But wait… that’s not it!


Join award-winning screenwriter, Jacob Krueger, and industry pros for an hour of writing lessons and guided exercises. Every Thursday, via Zoom.

Sign up below for this Thursday’s class!



Registration Information


We will see you this Thursday!

7pm ET / 4pm PT

Check Your Email For The Link

(Don’t see it? Check your spam folder)

Donate To Our Scholarship Fund

We match every donation we receive dollar for dollar, and use the funds to offset the cost of our programs for students who otherwise could not afford to attend.

We have given away offer 130,000 of scholarships in the past year.

Thank you for your support!

Other Amount? CONTACT US

Get Your Video Seminar


Where should we send it?

"*" indicates required fields

Would You Like More Information About Our Classes?
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Need A Payment Plan?

We like working with artists and strive not to leave writers behind over money.

If you need a payment plan or another arrangement to participate in our programs, we are happy to help.

Chat us or give us a call at 917-464-3594 and we will figure out a plan that fits your budget.

Join the waitlist!

Fill in the form below to be placed on the waitlist. We'll let you know once a slot opens up!