Monday, February 14, 2011

Character is Destiny...

...and a character who uses lots of cliches, like that... could be dead boring, or excruciatingly funny.  How he talks, walks, looks, sneezes, whether he pets or kicks his dog, whether or not he and the other characters are interesting, will help the readers decide whether they want to stick with a book or screenplay, or pass on and go on to the next.

When I was lucky enough to hear D.C. Fontana speak at an AWG General Meeting, the thing she kept repeating was, "A story is about a character with a problem."

Not a person, mind you - although a character can be a person.  But the stories we become most emotionally invested in are about a character we hook into, somebody we are willing to spend time with.  We want to know if ET can phone home.  If Scarlett O'Hara can save Tara from the carpetbaggers.  If Elizabeth can get past her Prejudice and Mr. Darcy past his Pride.

This is what a lot of "plot-driven" movies and books are like:

Just a bunch of dressed up, identical figures being moved here, there, everywhere, by "the hand of God" as it were.  Now this one is blonde, now that one is wearing pants instead of a skirt, but they are never really connected to the action.

If you're writing a screenplay, you're asking moviegoers to invest 2-3 hours of their lives with your imaginary people.  A book - minimum 3-4 hours, probably more.  Why would they want to spend it with flat, boring, colorless people? 

This is why I'll never read another Dan Brown novel.  Name three distinct or interesting things about his lead character (not Tom Hanks, but the character played by Tom Hanks.)


Yep, thought so.

There's a lot more to character than physical appearance, though that's helpful to know, too.  Women should not all be Barbie dolls, interchangeable except for hair color, nor men tall and ruggedly handsome (except in genre romance, of course.)  Is a man short with a taste for tall leggy blondes?  How does that work for - and against him?

How about musical tastes?  Any personal characteristic can be used to further the plot - remember in A Clockwork Orange, how the character of Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) loved Beethoven and had it turned against him as a punishment?

As writers, our characters are our children, and we need to know everything about them.  One helpful tool can be an organizer like this one.
from Jeremy Robinson's Screenplay Workbook
I use my worksheets all the time (and there's lots more good questions on the back, which I'm not showing here, plus tons of good info on plotting outlining.)  Some of this might not be known to us before we start writing, but as we write and the characters reveal themselves to us, we need to keep track of whether their daughter is named Melissa or Maleficent.  Names for our characters are very important; we can show a lot about where she comes from just by calling her Rosarita or Roseanne.

We can be surprised by what our characters reveal to us, "Wow, I never would have picked him to be a Catholic!"  Or the adult child of an alcoholic.  Or stocking his closet full of brown pants and blue shirts, a la Al Bundy, because someone once told him he looked good in blue.

Is our heroine struggling to get by, financially, dependent on an old car that's always breaking down?  Allergic to cats?  Envious of her gorgeous older sister?  Trying to quit biting her nails?  Even if not used as part of the plot, everything that we know about this character will help us write her as a rounded and full person.

The biggest payoff and interest comes about if the character's own strengths and weaknesses drive the plot.

From Writinghood:
Another important fact is that a truly well rounded hero must have a weakness. Writer John Ames states that, “There’s a law of fantasy and horror fiction that states: The hero must have just enough magic to fight back. A completely invulnerable character would be a dramatic dud because there would be no suspense when he or she was in danger.” A hero with no weakness is unbelievable and boring.
This is why James Bond has never done it for me.   James Bond is like Barbie for grown men - he looks pretty and has lots of nice clothes and fast shiny accessories, but in the end you know he's simply going to blow something up in a cinematically impressive way, and the bad guys will be foiled again.

The biggest mistake I see is when writers so closely identify with their characters they don't want to be mean to them.  They don't want to make them look foolish or unattractive or silly.


That's our jobOur job is to torture our characters and ridicule them and push them to find strengths they never knew they had.  We want our audience to understand the problem they face, and why it's so hard for them, to cheer for them to solve it, to groan when they fail, and really be cheering in the end when they solve it despite all their foibles and personal weaknesses - or perhaps, because of them.

So, what characters are you going to torture today?
Share about it in the comments, below.

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