Monday, April 7, 2008

Screenwriting 101: It Gives You Character

In a portion of Tom Shales’ book Live from New York that I’m too lazy to properly cite, one of the writers in the shows’ early period recounts working with Jim Henson’s Muppets for a recurring segment, and, when proposing a bit of dialogue for one of them, the puppeteer said that the character “wouldn’t say that,” much to the writer’s mockery and chagrin. However, in this instance, I really have to agree with the puppeteer. That’s the core of what makes a character a character, knowing what that character would say or do, and what they wouldn’t.

Creating characters can be a really difficult process if you take it the wrong way. If you don’t define your characters enough, your script can seem bland or boring, or worse, the individual characters will blend together. If you define them too much…in all actuality, you can’t overdefine a character, however, you need to know when to focus on the task at hand (writing the screenplay) and not the character biography.

1) Research

Yeah, that sounds boring, but it’ll help. If you’re working on an adaptation, it helps to explore multiple versions or surrounding literature related to the character, to see what’s been done prior. If you’re Chris Nolan, for example, and adapting Batman: The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008,) and the Joker is your villain, it would help to read multiple authors previous takes on the character, and to use them to produce a composite that might start to create your particular take for that character. Even if you’re not adapting, it helps to know what kind of character you’re making, and how it’s been done before, so you can effectively steal or subvert the audience’s expectations. If you’re making a seductive femme fatale, for example, if you know what’s been done in terms of such a character (perhaps watching a handful of classic noir, for example.)

2) On the Virtues and Limitations of Writing Backgrounds

Some writers I know live by these things, personally I can’t stand writing backgrounds for my characters. As long as it’s relevant to the story at hand, I will make some notes about who they are. Besides, leaving me openings to be creative can be part of the fun. And the audience is not really going to see your background except through how the character acts, so if you know how the character would act in a series of vastly different situations, and anything that’s immediately relevant to the plot (John McClane’s trouble with his ex-wife in Die Hard for example,) that’s really all you need to know ahead of time. The rest I personally fudge on the way, making sure I keep those fudges in mind as I’m writing so they don’t cancel each other out.

How to Make Your Character Stand Out:

Defining a character might seem easy: you might write something like:

JOHN Everyman, 29, valiant, daring, noble of bearing, courageous and gallant, a fountain of talent.

That is just frustrating for the director. How do you represent that visually? The audience is not reading the script, nor are they telepathic. So, provide only details the audience would have (sights and sounds.)

JOHN Everyman, 29, blonde hair, tall, broad shoulders, winning smile. You get a picture of John Everyman immediately, which is what any director or casting director really needs. Now, how do you make him valiant and daring and noble of bearing, courageous and gallant, a fountain of talent?

1) Diction and Syntax

In particular:
Diction: the accent, inflection, intonation, and speech-sound quality manifested by an individual speaker, usually judged in terms of prevailing standards of acceptability; enunciation.
Syntax: the study of the patterns of formation of sentences and phrases from words.

How does your character talk? Do they ask a lot of pointless rhetorical questions? Or are they just so blustering and full of hot air they just employ this same parallel sentence structure? Everyone likes to talk a certain way, it’s an element of how they grew up, how they were raised, and their own personal preferences. They phrase things differently, or choose how they say it differently. Each person has a unique diction and syntax, and part of making a character is realizing that particular diction and that particular syntax.

These things can say a lot about a character. Let’s say two characters, A, and B, are asking a girl out, and both are nervous.

Um, well, um, I mean, if you aren’t doing anything on Saturday, well, um, I’ve got this extra movie ticket and I’d love you, er, I mean, I’d like it, yeah, I’d like it very much if you would come, um, um, I mean, go and see it with me. It’s an, um, er, um, um, Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

As opposed to:
(Long Drawn Breath, talking rapidly)
So, yeah, I was wondering if you’d like to go with me to this movie thing. It’ll be a lot of fun, it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, full of explosions, y’know, that sort of thing. So I’ll pick you up around eight? No eight’s too late. Six? Six’s too early. Seven and that’s my final offer.
(Deep panting breath)

These two guys are both asking out a girl, and both nervous, but their characters are totally different and recognizable because of syntax and diction.

Dialogue can be as natural or stylized as you feel the situation calls for. I personally try to strike a happy middle between the two, not striving for a 100% accurate version of how people speak (because, let’s be honest, some people can’t talk) or the clipped witty banter of a 40’s romantic comedy (with all respect due to the genius that was Billy Wilder.)

2) It’s the little things

It’s the little details that make us all human. Not having little details makes a character seem flat and lifeless. Give your character some kind of nuance, give them limits or lines they won’t cross, or other minor details that would surprise the viewer or compliment or conflict with what we know. Say, for example, you have a character who’s a total jerk, but in one scene you show him being nice to somebody. (This specific kind of characterization is often called “petting the dog.” If you want to see an extremely heavy-handed version, watch the scenes with Matt Dillon and his father in Crash [Haggis, 2004, not Cronenberg, 1996.])

3) Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It’s one thing to have someone say “So and so is like this or that,” or “So and so wouldn’t do that.” It’s what is generally referred to as “show, not tell.” So, if you have the option of talking about how a character is, but could instead demonstrate through the script’s actions that same trait, it’s more powerful to show how the character is, rather than just describing it.

4) Words Speak Pretty Loudly Too

You may notice, in a lot of movies, the main character will be talking to his friend, and the friend will say: “You know what your problem is Protagonist? You…” and then states the problem the protagonist needs to overcome over the course of the story. It’s cheap, but it works. Especially when backed up by action.

How I Build Characters

This is my personal method for building characters, and it might not work perfectly for everybody, but it works well for me. I utilize all the stuff above, but I do two things to help me.

1) Take It Personal and Make It Personal

I can relate to all of my characters. Every one of them. Not 100%, definitely not, then every character would be me (and a little boring.) But there’s one part of them, at least, that I can identify with, it’s kind of a hook or a latch for me to get into the character’s head, to understand them.

2) The Characters Drive the Action and Not the Other Way Around

When I’m constructing a scene with my characters (next week,) I ask this question: “How would this character respond to this situation? I want this to happen later, but how would he get to that.”

Next week, we get into issues of act and scene structure. Good writing!

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