Q: I’ve gotten feedback saying my characters are flat and uninteresting and wouldn’t attract an A-list actor. What’s your advice on how to strengthen my characters?
A: It’s no wonder that some of the greatest writers began their careers as actors.
The art of writing and acting have always been profoundly intertwined. That’s because structurally, movies grow out of character. And character is the thing that actors understand best.
So what is character from an actor’s perspective? And how can that help you as a writer?
CHARACTER BEGINS WITH A WANT
As writers, we are often seduced by “characteristics” when we try to create character. Characteristics can be adjectives like “pretty”, “ugly” “eccentric”, “angry”, “jealous”, “selfish”, “generous”, “wacky”, or they can be elements of carefully crafted backstories “was abused by his father”, “studied chemistry”, “works as a plumber”, “grew up on a farm”.
You put a lot of work into thinking up all these elements, so you’d hope they’d lead to great characters. But unfortunately, more often than not, instead of helping you to create the kinds of characters you’d want to follow for 100 pages, they lead to stereotypes and cliches that neither capture an audience’s attention nor drive your stories forward.
If you don’t believe me, just turn on your TV. Watch any soap opera, and you’ll be amazed at the intricate backstories that have been created for these paper thin characters. Watch an episode of any lousy sit-com, and you’ll see characters with tons of highly unusual characteristics, that nevertheless feel like you’ve seen them before.
As any trained actor will tell you, the reason for this is simple.
Characters are not adjectives.
They’re not backstories. They’re not characteristics, no matter how interesting those characteristics may be.
Characters are verbs. And these verbs begin with a want.
WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING?
When a great actor looks at a screenplay, that’s the question they’re asking. What does this character want more than anything? And what are the unique ways this character pursues that desperate desire, that are different from the way any other character would do so?
These wants affect every aspect of character. The way they speak. The actions they take. The choices they make. The way they dress. And of course, they also affect the choices actors make in performance.
Take a moment to observe the people around you, and you will notice that this is true in life as well. People do bizarre, unexpected, sometimes even incomprehensible things in pursuit of the things they want.
It is the unique way that they do these things that distinguish these people from anyone else in the world, that make you love them or hate them or fear them or desire them.
Take away that want, and all you have is quirk for it’s own sake– a paper thin shell with nothing underneath, like an M&M without the chocolately center.
Let your character pursue the want, and all the other aspects of his or her personality will reveal themselves to you. And when you crack that shell open, you’ll have all kinds of deliciousness to enjoy.
OBJECTIVE AND SUPEROBJECTIVE
Within a scene, the wants that drive a character are called Objectives. They can be as simple as a cold glass of water, or as profound as to reconnect with a lost love. The only thing that matters is that the character wants it desperately, and is willing to go to extraordinarily lengths to get it.
Within a larger movie, these small objectives point toward a larger Superobjective, a big want which governs in some way every choice the character makes, and everything that happens to the character, within the structure of the movie.
As an actor breaks down a script, he or she will find the Objective and Superobjective underlying every line, every action, and even every image, in order to craft a memorable character that pursues those wants in unique but believable ways.
Using an actor’s approach to think about your own characters in this way will not only help you to discover the qualities that differentiate your character, but also point you toward the structural moments to which your plot must build.
Once you learn what your character wants most desperately, you know what you can take away from them, how to test them, and how to make them change. And that, in fact, is the essence of screenplay structure.
ACTORS GET MOVIES MADE
The craft of the writer and the craft of the actor are inextricably intertwined, not just by process, but by business as well. Whether you’re producing your movie yourself, or trying to sell it to a big Hollywood studio, to get your movie made you need to be able to attract great actors. And that means knowing how to think like an actor, so that you can create the kinds of roles they want to play.
Objective and Superobjective are just the beginning. The more you know about the actors craft, the better writer you will become at creating characters, and the more likely you will be to attract the kind of star who can bring your movie to fruition.
Yet strangely, these two interrelated fields are often taught as if they were separate disciplines, with actors receiving little training in writing, and writers receiving even less training in acting.
That’s why all of my screenwriting workshops are fundamentally woven around acting concepts, as well as ideas tied to Jungian psychology, directing, and even editing and cinematography.
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