Saturday, August 2, 2008

Character: From Concept to Execution

So you want to tell a story? But what is it about? Sure, you can give me the basic pitch and toss out the usual “it’s Speed 2 meets Casablanca,” but what is your story really about. I’ll give you a hint: people. Stories are ultimately about characters. And the truly lasting stories are ones with beautifully crafted characters. It’s the human connection that is needed (even if you’re characters aren’t human, as in the best film I’ve seen so far this year, Wall-E).

Thus, when crafting a story, you need to pay careful attention to the characters you are creating. Lets go over some good guidelines that will get you started in the right direction. This is by no means a complete exploration of characterization. And if anyone reading this has additional advice in the area, by all means, post a comment here. We’re all here to learn.

Make Your Characters Relatable

A given character doesn’t have to be likable, but you do want to make them relatable if they are going to be your main character. Even if they are not your main character this is usually a good idea. Relatable characters are ones audiences are naturally drawn to. And if you can make your character not just relatable but likable as well, you are going to go a long way in helping the audience root for this character if she or he is the protagonist in your story. There is a flip side to this: You can create a character that is not necessarily relatable or likable, but is fascinating enough that audiences want to know more about him or her. An example currently on everyone’s mind: The Joker. I can’t exactly relate to his violence and madness, but I am fascinated by the mystery of who he is, of his philosophical approach to evil, and how he carries out his crimes.

Make Your Characters Real and Unique

If you’re characters have no defining characteristics, well, they’re not characters at all. Now I don’t mean they need to have an ear growing out of their forehead (though that did work on Futurama). What I mean by defining characteristics is that your characters should be distinct from each other—be their own separate persons. One may like cats, the other may hate cats, still another may find cats amusing but can never own once since she is allergic to them. Each character, just like each person you know, needs to have their own ideas, quirks, fears, passions, allergies, speech patterns, mannerisms, sense of fashion, taste in music, so on.

Along those lines, make sure your characters don’t feel like characters in a film. They need to be real people. I see too many regurgitated characters in films, from both Hollywood cookie-cutter flicks to independent films that suffer from bad writing and too much “inspiration” from specific films they end up simply copying. These characters don’t respond to situations in any realistic manner. They don’t feel like real people. This is my number one complaint for The Happening. None of the characters respond in that film in a way that feels consistent with how real people behave in dire, stressful, and frightening circumstances. They felt like characters in a movie, and I . . . well, I felt bored.

How you make your characters real is thinking of them in much more detail than ultimately will come across in your script or film. Here’s what I do. In one of my college writing classes, I was encouraged to fill out a character profile for each character in the novel I was working on. I’ll list the questions here so you can see what I mean.

Character Fact List

Character Type: (lead, supporting, protagonist, antagonist, how ever you want to identify them)
Connection to Lead:
Story Goal: (every character should have an objective!)
Body Type:
Hair Color:
Eye Color:
Distinctive Speech Pattern:
Personal Life:
Private Life:

These are a good guideline, but you can create your own categories. Often times I will not spend very much energy describing the physical attributes of a character for a screenplay since that will be determined in the end by the casting. For a short story, or novel, however, I do spend a lot more time thinking about how my characters look and how to best describe them in prose.

I want to emphasize something here: Story Goal. Every single character needs to have a goal within your story, even if that goal changes at some point. List both, and the point at which you expect that goal to change. Say, maybe you have a character named Sally, and her objective is to help Don propose to Jen. But maybe Sally finds out at some point that Jen is cheating on Don, doesn’t love him, and has no intention on marrying him. Then, Sally’s objective might change to find the best way to break the news to Don without completely crushing his spirit.

Some characters may have very simple objectives. In a disaster film, it could be a simple as survival. And who can blame them. Primal objectives can work well in such stories, but if you really want to draw the audience in, you need to give your characters specific objectives. Maybe your main character is a single mother of two and needs to make it home alive because there will be no one else to care for her son and daughter. Now you’ve given us real powerful objectives, and the stakes are high. Her death may well mean the demise of her two children.

Go into as much detail as possible for the background of your characters. Give them history. There’s nothing worse than characters that feel like they came into existence just moments before they walked into a scene. Give them a past, ex-girlfriends, childhood fears, hobbies, favorite movies and books, so forth. And don’t censor yourself here. This is just for you and your creative process. You don’t have to show this (probably shouldn’t ever show this) to anyone else. I’ve written down all kinds of things about characters I’m creating, from their dislike for a particular type of coffee, to their masturbatory habits. The best characters are those that you’ve infused with both good and bad qualities. Real people are not all good or all bad. So think carefully about what your character struggles with. Does your character objectify woman? Does your character secretly hate another character? Does she lust after another character, but can never admit this? Does he have suicidal thoughts he never shares? Is he secretly depressed? Does she drink to numb the sadness?

As you think of the character’s past, think of their family. Have they lost someone? Where are their parents? Friends? Siblings? Where did they grow up? Did they move? Did they want to be something different than they are now? As I mentioned above, you will ultimately come up with way more detail that will actually make an appearance in your script (though at times you may be writing something an be surprised by how these little details suddenly pop into your story). The idea is not that you need all this detail so that all this information is thus conveyed in the story itself. Rather, with all this information at your disposal, you are going to create a well-crafted character that feels like a real person. Keep in mind too that real people are filled with secrets and inconsistencies. It may be that the vast majority of the character’s back story is really just your little secret, but it should inform you about the choices and responses your character will have to the people and situations in your story.

The Character on the Page

Now that you’ve got the back-story down on your characters (and assuming you have an outline or game plan for your plot), it’s time to start writing the script. But first there’s some more help as you write this and other stories:

One the best things writers can do in their efforts to create well-crafted characters is to take an acting class, or get involved with a civic theatre. The process of learning how to set yourself aside and become a character is precisely what writers need to do at the keyboard or notepad.

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of creating characters in Brandilyn Collins’s Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors.* Don’t be deceived by the title. I think every screenwriter should read this book too! What Collins does in this book is to borrow from the acting craft of characterization for performance purposes, and transforms those into tools writers can use to create well-crafted characters.

Collins points out that characters need subtext. Often times what people say is not exactly what’s on their minds. Be careful about having characters that just come out and say what’s on their mind all the time. I know very few people who really do this. Therefore, you need to have subtext to your dialogue.

As Collins points out in her book, each character should have an objective within each scene. If you break down your story into each scene and think of these scenes as their own mini-stories, every character involved in the scene will have some sort of objective for the scene, which may or may not be their objective for the story. Some times, these objectives may run parallel to their larger objective, or may be part of it, or could even be part of different subtext within the character.

The idea behind having character objective for each scene of your story is simple. You need to have an economy of words, of time, and of space in your story. You don’t have all the time in the world, so don’t waste what little time you do have to tell your story on scenes, even characters, that don’t advance the story. In other words, things need to tie together, one scene should lead to the next, or set something up that will be quite important later in the story. If you ever stop and think carefully about a scene and realize it accomplishes nothing in your story, or has no connection to the characters objectives or plot you’ve crafted, delete it! Even if it’s your favorite scene. If you can find a way to make it tie into the story, you’d better do it well. If not, it will be that random scene everyone wonders about—that scene that later people look back at and say, “Gosh, I should have gotten up and used the bathroom then, wouldn’t have missed a thing.”

Collins goes into great detail in her book about Inner Rhythm, Restraint and Control, and Emotional Memory. I don’t have the time or space to cover those here. But really, Collins does such a great job in her book, you really need to just check it out. If you’re serious about creating great characters, you’ll enjoy this book. Not only that, but you will discover valuable tools for crafting characters that don’t rely on cheap shortcuts that lead to stale and predictable characters.

Final Thoughts

There’s one other great exorcize every writer and director should be engaged in: People watching. Get out in public, take a notebook, and watch people. Be careful, though. You don’t want to come across as some creep (or flirt, depending on who you’re watching). Casually stroll through a mall, or sip your latte at a coffee shop. Listen to how people talk, watch how they walk. How do they interact? Wonder about who they are, where they are from, why they are here. Try creating a back-story for them in your head. All of this will help you train your brain to think about such things, and make your character creation process much smoother.

Finally, I find it helpful to chip away at characters. So I fill out my fact sheet about my characters, and then I write my story. But in the process of writing, I discover new things about my characters, and that reshapes how I think of them. That is a significant part of script revisions for me. I never stop revising. I really don’t. I’ll revise the script while we’re shooting the film, if needed. Some times the revision is a simple choice to change a line on set, or to cut a portion of a scene I realize I no longer need. Revision continues in the editing room too, as I cut lines and whole chunks of scenes realizing that the story will be stronger without them. Even in the sound mix of my latest short film (“Always Reaching”) I revised the story just slightly by choosing to use a different audio take of a line, which changed the meaning of such a simple but powerful statement, “I love you,” because of the tone of voice and delivery. I could make this change because I know well the character I helped create, and believe this change is closer to what he really wanted to covey at that moment.


*Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins
Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, February 2002.

1 comment:

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Mikel, thanks so much for your kind words about Getting Into Character. I'm very glad to know my book has helped you. You're right--story is story. Whether someone's writing a screenplay or a novel, the characterization techniques still apply.

I'd love to write a screenplay some day, as I'm such a visual writer. But wow is it a hard medium. Hats off to you for what you're doing.

Blessings on you and your writing.

~ Brandilyn