Elevate Your Story by Surveying Your Characters

Sable Jak is a former actress and dancer and has, like so many other writers, been writing ever since she can remember. She works and writes for Jim French Productions, Inc., is an audio dramatist, a columnist with Absolute Write, has radio mysteries running on Virtually American, and is the author of Writing the Fantasy Film: Heroes and Journeys in Alternate Realities. Follow Sable on Twitter @srjak and check out her site.

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Elevate Your Story by Surveying Your Characters by Sable Jak | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Ever have trouble getting to know your characters? Wonder why some of them take on lives of their own and you’re not included? I’ve found a fun, and painless, way to get to know them better. Make them take a survey. What kind? You know the types, you get them through your e-mail all the time. In the past two weeks I’ve received three. They purport to give insight into someone’s life and provide information you’ve never known. My theory is, if they work for real people, why not characters? Here’s how I came to think this way:

One day, as I worked on a script, I had difficulty with one of the characters. He refused to be the way I wanted him to be. Frustrated, I gave myself a break and checked my email. A friend had sent another survey to me so I figured “what the heck?” and answered it. Except, I didn’t answer it in my voice, I answered it in the voice of the difficult character.

Can you say, “epiphany?”

Suddenly I wasn’t floundering any more. Sure, I had a biography on “Joe,” I always write biographies on my characters, but this time it didn’t help. This rarely happens to me so, even though the script is a rom-com, I considered killing him off in the first act. That is, until the survey came along.

The questions in the survey were pretty standard: Who’s your favorite author? Where would you like to live? What are your goals? How do you define success, etc. etc. etc. I concentrated on the character’s biography and set it in my mind so I could answer instinctually rather than think “What would Joe say?”

Talk about surprise insight. He revealed things I didn’t know about him and, best of all, he’s now easy to write! His biography is essentially the same, with a few subtle and incredible adjustments, like the fact that the one person in history he’d like to talk with is Bram Stoker.

I made the rest of my characters take the survey and, no, I didn’t get any actual writing done that night, but it was worth it. I have a new outlook on every one of my people. I’ve also been writing at a steady clip ever since. I may actually finish this script soon, whereas a couple of weeks ago I was thinking of burying it in the back of my filing cabinet.

Of course I probably knew all this information already, I just hadn’t tapped into it yet. But who cares, this is a fun way to tap into hidden information. If you’re having a few problems with a character why not make him take a survey and see if it helps? Just as a teaser, try the next few questions on a character and see what happens. Remember, don’t think “What would she/he say?” Try free association answers.

1. If you could pick any where in the world to live, where would it be?
2. If you could meet anyone in history, who would it be?
3. What do you wish you’d told someone?
4. What do you wish you hadn’t told someone?
5. Why do you think you’re a failure?

The last question provides some very interesting answers. My Joe is a bit of a loser, yet his answer was: I’m not a failure. And his reasons why he isn’t are very telling. A different character, a successful one, had the opposite reaction. Despite all his so-called success, he considers himself a failure.

There were several other questions in the survey I gave my characters––about fifteen if I remember correctly––but the five I listed above are the ones I thought particularly interesting. I think I’ll develop a few questions of my own to add to the list. Then, when I finish the script I’ll run the survey past everyone again, just to see if the answers are different. I’m sure Joe will still want to talk to Bram Stoker, but I’m not so sure his answer to number four is going to be the same. Who knows, he’s already surprised me once in the past two weeks, why not again?

Keep writing, no one else is going to do it for you.

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