Writing On Spec

An award caliber procrastinator discovers a new and dangerous pursuit to keep him from actually writing another script. Why another Blog? I love to talk screenwriting. I love to talk story. I live in Richmond, VA. It's almost easier to get produced than find another screenwriter here. We are the anti-LA.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Character Basics

Here's some great information on character basics. Creating a great character takes work and there are some simple touches that can be applied to your existing characters that may make them a little more memorable for your audience.

Characters who are compelling and believable, who display understandable actions and justifiable emotions, are the very heart of good fictions. The protagonist, or main character, should be likable and sympathetic - but not perfect. Imperfections make a character more real, more human. Readers need to be able to identify with, and care about, the protagonist. Or even better, to be the protagonist. Readers should feel the protagonist's fears, share the protagonist's hopes, strive for the protagonist's goals. It's like the difference between driving by a horrible accident involving strangers, and driving by one that involves your loved ones. Emotional intensity increases when the reader can identify with the situation on a more personal, visceral level.

Characters should be unforgettable, lingering in the reader's mind long after the story is finished. They should be full-bodied and well developed, but not cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. How does a writer create memorable characters? Begin by observing the people around you. Use your eyes first, but don't dwell on the physical description. Make use of your other senses. What does a person sound like? How does their handshake feel? How do they smell? Take not of their behavior. Are there any nervous habits, mannerisms, or idiosyncrasies that make them notable? If so, what do these suggest about their personality? What is their facial expression? How are they dressed? What sort of posture do they have? For instance, if a woman is tall, and her posture is slump-shouldered, might that suggest she is, or at least has been, self-conscious about her height? In each person you know or meet, identify one or two intriguing or telling characteristics for your files. Collect those files every day, whether they are written or stored only in your head. Build yourself a portfolio of character traits that you can later pull from. Make use of every opportunity. If you're standing in line at the grocery store, watch the check-out clerk. If you're stuck in traffic, study the drivers in the cars around you. What can you surmise about these people during your brief and limited observations? If the guy in the car beside you is wearing a suit and drive a Mercedes convertible, what does that suggest? What if the guy in the Mercedes is wearing a raggy old T-shirt, has messy hair, and a four-day growth of beard?

Which brings us to consistency. It's important for your character's motivations and actions to be consistent for them to be believable. That doesn't mean you must avoid all inconsistencies. But your baseline must be firmly established first. Let's say you have a character who is obsessive about her appearance. Her makeup is always impeccable, her hair meticulously coifed. Her fingernails are well manicured, and flawlessly polished. Her clothes are designer fashions, well cared for and neatly pressed, with never a wrinkle to be found. She would rather be dead than be caught in public looking anything less than perfect. Would this character make a quick run to the 7-11 without her makeup? Certainly not under any ordinary circumstances. But suppose someone has broken into her house in the middle of the night and is now holding her young son hostage at gunpoint. Suppose this someone told her to go to the 7-11 and buy him some cigarettes, and that she had exactly 10 minutes to get there and back, or else her kid's brains would be decorating the walls. Would that prompt her to go out without her makeup? And might someone seeing her, someone who knows about her usual obsession, not sense something is very wrong?

Let's go back to the man in the Mercedes, the one wearing the grungy T-shirt. Here, implausibility might be a key tool. The inconsistency of the image - the rich man's car being driven by someone who appears to be just shy of a vagabond, might be used to reveal a significant fact about the character. Perhaps the driver was once rich and successful, but then he fell on hard times and lost everything. Now he's broke, drifting from one menial job to another, never knowing where his next meal will come from. Yet he clings to the car, even though he could eat for several months on the money he'd make if he sold it. Why? Does the car have some special meaning for him? Is his identity, his sense of self, somehow tied to that car? Is he, perhaps living in it? Does he clean and care for the car with great tenderness, even though he doesn't care for himself very well?

Whatever the scenario, it must be believable. Real life is full of inconsistencies and unexplainable behavior. Fiction should not be.

A good writer brings his characters to life on the page. To do that, the writer must know the character inside and out, every thought, every nuance, every trait. Much of this character information will never be used and, in fact, shouldn't be. A handful of telling and identifiable characteristics - the primary characteristics that truly define and communicate who the character is - are all that is necessary. Finding the perfect balance between revealing too little or too much about character can be difficult. Too often, beginning writers portray their characters through snapshots - brief glimpses of static time that reveal nothing about the person inside the hull. Overexposure can be just as deadly. Don't overwhelm your reader with details up front, but rather leak them out as the story progresses. Let your reader get to know your characters the same way we get to know people in real life. When you meet somebody for the first time, they don't usually tell you all the details about themselves or their lives. You're provided with a few clues, an initial impression that may or may not be on target. If you spend more time with that person, additional details are often revealed, allowing you to adjust and expand upon that initial impression. Many of those details are gleaned through your own observations, not because someone spells them out for you. A good writer will let readers do their own gleaning by showing what the characters are like, rather than simply telling them. If a writer does her job well, her characters will eventually become instantly identifiable to the reader through their gestures, patterns of speech, actions and motivations.

Consider the following examples:

David Martin, three years old, was a little hellion. He was always getting into trouble. Today was no different. While his mother was busy with the laundry down in the basement, he scribbled on the kitchen wall with a purple crayon. He knew he wasn't supposed to write on the walls, but he did it anyway. When he heard his mother start back up the stairs, he ran and hid behind the couch, thinking she couldn't punish him if she couldn't find him. But his mother wasn't fooled for one minute. She heard him, running his truck along the floor behind the couch, making engine noises with his throat.

Hearing his mother's footsteps on the cellar stairs, Davie froze for one long moment, his hand poised before his scribbled creation. His face resembled the wide-eyed stare of the head he'd torn off his sister's doll this morning - unblinking and startled. And then he sprang into action, darting from the room, running for his hiding place behind the couch. In one chubby hand, he clutched his favorite Tonka dump truck, scraped and battered, with one wheel missing. In the other, was the purple crayon he'd just used on the kitchen wall. He dropped to his knees near the end of the couch, shoving the offending crayon beneath it. Then he scrambled into the safety of his fortress, pausing a moment to listen for his mother. His eyes drifted from the space at the end of the couch to the truck still clutched in his hand. He reached over with one finger and spun a wheel on it's axle. Then he set the truck on the floor and began to push it back and forth, making growling engine noises from the back of his throat.

The first example tells the reader about David. The voice is mostly passive, distancing the reader from the action. The second example does a better job of showing the reader who David is. The use of the diminutive form of his name, Davie, as opposed to David, gives a clue to his age. The items he carries with him, and the action of using the crayon on the wall give another. The fact that he tries to hide the crayon show an immature understanding of right and wrong. And while he's smart enough to try to hide the evidence, he's not smart enough to remain quiet while hidden. The brevity of his attention span further shows his character. As does the fact that he ripped the head off his sister's doll. While readers may not know exactly how old David is, they will certainly have a good idea. And the second example does a better job of involving readers in the action. Note that neither example gives us any type of physical description of David. Readers will create their own mental image of a character when one is lacking. Which of the above examples creates a more vivid and detailed image? How important is it if your image doesn't exactly match someone else's? How important is it that David's character, or to the reader, if David's hair is blonde or black?

Don't overlook the importance of character interactions. How will Davie's mother react to her son's misadventures? Will she laugh and gently scold him for drawing on the wall? Or will she stomp her feet and rake her hands through her hair and drag Davie from behind the couch, threatening him with severe punishment? How will Davie's sister react to the whole scenario? Will she sympathize with her little brother's troubles, or take delight in the fact that he's been caught and punished? Will Davie's mother tell Davie's father about the incident? Or keep it to herself? The interplay of emotions, and the way one character behaves with another can often reveal telling details about the relationship between the two characters, as well as their personalities.



Blogger Jurgen Wolff said...

I find that one useful element in linking characters to plot is to consider what the characters WANT and what they actually NEED. For example, a character might want cosmetic surgery in order to look better, but what he or she really needs is self-acceptance. Often in films the character's journey is from their want to their need.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 3:26:00 AM EST  
Blogger Dave said...

That's an excellent point! It is often the inner need that the character is unaware of that drives them towards what they perceive they need.

Thanks for the input.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 10:37:00 PM EST  

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