THE CRAFT: Writing Dynamic Characters Actors Will Want to Sign On For

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“A one-eyed astrophysicist, wearing pink fuzzy bunny slippers and nothing else, walks into a bar and … ” What does he say? What does he do? An arresting visual is a great beginning for dynamic characters, but character is so much more than mere externals: Character is about expression.

Verbal (dialogue) and physical (behavior) expression, taken together, create and convey character—without equal energy devoted to writing both halves of this equation, one is left with either a hollow husk or a caricature. And no halfway-decent actor wants to waste his or her time on a part like that. (Unless, granted, the paycheck induces a nosebleed.)

When approaching character, try writing from the inside out: A character’s three fundamental dimensions (physiology, sociology and psychology) on the page are necessary for an actor to then create a textured performance on the screen.

Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning role as Aileen Wuornos in Monster Photo: Newmarket Films

Actors and Characters: Puppets or People?

Either an actor is a puppet conveying the illusion of a person, or a person conveying another person. What you, as a writer, believe regarding the role of an actor will greatly influence the attention you devote to writing characters for them to play. Fair enough?

Let us call the first of these two approaches to character the Mamet Manner. In his book True and False, writer-director David Mamet advances: “The Stanislavsky ‘Method,’ and the technique of the schools derived from it, is nonsense … The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, […] the audience sees an illusion of character … To create this illusion, the actor has to undergo nothing whatsoever He or she is as free of the necessity of ‘feeling’ as a magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers.” Well! Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Mamet!

Perhaps such an approach to writing character offends your artistic sensibilities. If an actor should approach a character on the page of a script as simply lines to be said clearly, then an actor is nothing more than a flesh-and-blood puppet reciting an author’s commands. Such a philosophy on acting ultimately yields that human-being actors are utterly useless, and CGI constructs would be preferable: They, after all, would most likely not command SAG minimum salaries, let alone millions of dollars. Or StarWagons.

Moreover, it follows from Mamet’s Manner that the screenwriter would not have to invest much time nor energy into writing a character. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, a more cursory approach to writing and performing character was the norm. But with the advent of the motion-picture camera, where the audience can and wants to be up-close to the action, in the actors’ faces, a more sophisticated, textured approach to writing and acting have flourished hand in hand throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Additionally, in this present hyper-media age with even the most average viewers’ extreme exposure to so many thousands of narratives a year (on TV, Internet, radio, film, workplace), the bar for quality storytelling gets higher every day, requiring higher efforts on the behalf of the storytellers (writers and actors).

More popularly practiced, the second approach to acting and to writing characters is the Stanislavsky Method. According to this system, an actor takes a role and works toward living in, and thereby manifesting, the character’s skin as if the character were a true human being. To do so, the actor undergoes extensive personal psychoanalytical recovery of sense memories in order to imbue the character with these senses, emotions and feelings when called for. A famous teacher of the Stanislavsky Method, Lee Strasberg recommended to his acting students (Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando included) to know the character’s life before the story begins. We may sensibly conclude that the writer must know the character’s life before the story begins, as well, for the story can only be richer for this knowledge, not more flat.

To offer some insight into how a high-caliber actor approaches a script, Michael Caine writes in his book Acting in Film: “The moment you pick up a script, you start to make certain deductions about the character you are going to play. It’s like picking up clues. The writer gives you some hints and, if you are lucky, you will also have insights based on your experience of life. You may also use observations of other people who perhaps resemble your character in some way.” Naturally, in order for those clues to be present for the actor to find in the second place, the writer must embed them into the script in the first place. This skill will emerge from the writer’s thorough comprehension of his character’s background. Caine concludes, “The best movie actors become their characters to such an extent that the product isn’t viewed by the audience as a performance. It’s a strange situation, but in film a person is a person, not an actor; and yet you need an actor to play the person.”

Most classic characters of cinema achieve their iconic status in cultural memory because of precisely the “strange situation” Caine describes. Watching Taxi Driver, we don’t see Robert De Niro playing Travis Bickle, we see Travis Bickle. Watching Juno, we don’t see Ellen Page, we see Juno MacGuff. Watching The Dark Knight, we don’t see Heath Ledger, we see The Joker. These are not actors reciting lines onscreen, these are people living as other people in front of the camera. It’s not easy to play and not easy to write.

Lajos Egri’s Three-Part “Character Cocktail”

According to world-renowned drama theorist Lajos Egri in his treatise The Art of Dramatic Writing, “You may not believe it, but the characters in a play [or screenplay] are supposed to be real people. They are supposed to do things for reasons of their own … Every object has three dimensions: depth, height, width. Human beings have an additional three dimensions: physiology, sociology, psychology. Without a knowledge of these three dimensions, we cannot appraise a human being” … or hope to write a “tridimensional” character.

While good screenwriting decorum prohibits paragraph-long descriptions of a character’s appearance, mental state, or history, a vivid knowledge of such three dimensions (a character’s past) will inevitably bleed into dialogue within your present story. A prime example hails from Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch): Captain Renault asks Rick (Humphrey Bogart), “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” “My health,” Rick replies. “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters?” guffaws Captain Renault, “What waters? We’re in the desert!” “I was misinformed.” Obviously, there’s a fascinating backstory of how Rick came to be in Casablanca, but he’s not telling. The point is that it exists and therefore affects Rick’s outlook on the world. No flashback necessary.

Similarly, any episode of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men shows how even the simplest one-word line of dialogue—“Yes”—when spoken with meaning, with feeling, can send shivers up viewers’ arms. The means by which this occurs is the uncommon emotional layering with which the actor imbues his or her character. Also typical to shows such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, this phenomenon occurs when a character has so much he or she is thinking about, reflecting on, yet the character—the person—chooses not to outwardly express those energies; they remain glimmering just behind the eyes. In fact, like an uncomely case of scabies, melodrama breaks out all over a scene’s skin when one or more characters starts spewing everything he or she is thinking and feeling. The effect on an audience witnessing this is, ironically, not that the character feels more real, but less real. People, after all, don’t walk around saying what they mean— especially when it matters most. Good drama often amounts to withholding drama.

Physiology

First, for an example of how physiology affects a character’s expressions of behavior, consider Shrek from the first film in the series (screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman). Shrek is a large, foul-smelling, green ogre on the outside (physiology), and that affects how people have always treated him (sociology) and how he views himself (psychology). Yes, Shrek’s external appearance seems to condemn him to a friendless, lonely existence, and Shrek even convinces himself that solitude is what he wants, until the plot forces on him an alternative way to live— one of friendship, of love, a life of others.

From an actor’s standpoint, a role’s physiology can provide an appealing reason to accept the role, for in playing such a role, the actor exhibits a newly mastered skill (which, really, is quite cool to do and for audiences to see). For instance, Hilary Swank learned to box for Million Dollar Baby and won an Oscar®. Dustin Hoffman studied individuals with autism for Rain Man and won an Oscar. Charlize Theron gruesomely overhauled her entire gorgeous physique, voice and face for Monster and won an Oscar. Certainly, the awards circuit demonstrates that there’s something to be said for roles that necessitate considerable showmanship, body-changing and playing, making for a memorable, laudable performance.

Sociology

To see how sociology informs a tridimensional character, look no further than The Departed (Academy Award®-winning screenplay by William Monahan), which presents William Costigan’s character (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a product of two milieu, making him uniquely qualified to serve the State as a “rat” in the Irish Mob’s ranks. In the film’s first act, Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) spends an entire scene lambasting Costigan about his sociology: his criminal uncles, his parents’ divorce when he was a child and how it affected him. Dignam sneers, “You were kinda a double-kid, I bet, right? One kid with your old man, one kid with your mother. You’re upper-middle class during the weeks, then you’re droppin’ your r’s and you’re hangin’ in the big bad Southie projects with your daddy the donkey on the weekends. You had different accents? You did! You were like different people!”

Just watch Costigan simmer and stew, enduring his biography thrown back at him, having to retain composure in his seat, trembling hands folded. Had Costigan not experienced the life he had, he would not have been selected from the Staties to perform the monumental task of infiltrating the Mob for Dignam’s elite department. More significantly, screenwriter Monahan first had to choose to construct such a life to qualify Costigan. Ultimately, sociological determinism proves to be a major theme. After all, as Jack Nicholson narrates opening the film, “I don’t wanna be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” Costigan accepts the difficult assignment, setting his own tragedy in motion in order to prove—to himself, really—that at heart he’s one of the good guys.

Psychology

“Psychology is a product of [physiology and sociology],” pronounces Egri. In The Queen (screenplay by Peter Morgan), Queen Elizabeth II’s mindset in the weeks following Princess Diana’s death is imaginatively represented. As vicar for the viewer, Tony Blair learns how the Queen’s decisions, her actions, are greatly influenced by her upbringing, by her status, and her physical mannerisms—her way of moving in the world, if you will— follow from that as well. The story’s largest mystery remains, “What must it be like to see and live in the modern world from the Queen’s eyes? What must it be like to think like her?” We can never know such cold sadness, but perhaps we can feel it.

All the World’s a Stage

Of course, actors love to play roles that enable them to show off some skill, some humor, some range of sensory emotions, but before the actors can do much of anything, the writer must know—thoroughly, methodically— the internal world of the person he or she is writing about. If it’s true that character produces narrative, then certainly better-written narratives will result from better-written characters. Do better-written characters produce better-performed performances? Sounds sensible enough.

Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010.

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