Improvising Screenplays: Creating Characters with the Wheel Exercise

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script.

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600px-Dharma_Wheel.svgThey say you can judge a person by his or her friends. I’ll piggyback on that idea by suggesting that you can judge — and define — your screenplay’s protagonist by virtue not just of her friends, but her enemies, too, as well as any other characters she associates with. And I’ll give you an exercise you can put to the test whenever you want to solidify and deepen the main character of your script.

One of my favorite improv coaches introduced me to an exercise called “The Character Wheel.” It immediately struck me as being both simple and incredibly powerful. Here’s how it worked. We would start out with one of the actors doing a monologue off the top of his head, discovering what he could of his character as he went along. This monologue would only last a minute or two…until he (and the rest of the group) would begin to get a feeling of who this newly hatched character was.

We then each took turns “jumping in,” as other personalities we imagined naturally being in that character’s life. His boss, his spouse, friends, coworkers…anyone we simply and instinctively decided would shed light on a different aspect of that main character’s life. We could jump backward in time to show that main character as a child, speaking with his kindergarten teacher. Similarly, we could jump forward in time, to his deathbed, receiving the last rites from a priest. We could explore the different physical realms of his life: from home, to work, to anywhere else.

People behave differently with different people, and in different situations. An evil megalomaniac businessman acts much differently with his granddaughter than with some schlub whose small business he’s acquiring in a hostile takeover.

By triangulating how this central character appeared in the many different aspects (and times) of his life, we began to develop a deeper understanding of who that character was: what his flaws were; his deepest desires; his greatest fear. We determined what he was like at his best, and his worst. And we discovered an arc to his life, as well as the pressure points that brought into relief both the comedy and tragedy of his main, overriding story. We could perform a whole show — with a wide, varied cast of characters — off of this exercise.

Think of your screenplay as a Hall of Mirrors for your protagonist. Every other character you present on screen is an opportunity to reflect back at your hero. (Or anti-hero.)

We may first think of the oft-repeated trope of the hero’s arch-nemesis being a sick, demented reflection of the hero himself. The Joker is always fond of postulating that Batman wouldn’t exist without him: that he is his only reason for being. Picture someone like Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman slimily purring, “You and I, we are not so unalike, are we not?” (Why do they always talk like that? So many double negatives!)

Every supporting character is an opportunity to show what our hero would be like if he experienced one thing different in his life: made one different choice…lacked one specific skill…or had one ounce less of integrity.

One great example I chanced upon recently was in Lars and The Real Girl. (Can we talk about that movie for a minute? I had heard that it wasn’t just about a guy having sex with a blow up doll…but who knew it was such a heartwarming, Capra-esque tale of a community coming together?) The possible love interest in the film, a completely sane young woman, has a teddy bear she keeps in her cubicle at work, which she genuinely cares about. What is this detail if not a purposely drawn measurement against which to judge Ryan Gosling’s heightened, but ultimately understandable, attachment to his own doll?

Figure out your main character’s pressure points…and use your other characters to measure against them.

Buddy characters can also be utilized to explore the protagonist’s choices and dilemmas. Meg Ryan’s freewheelin’ girlfriend might exclaim, “Oooooh! What a hunk! And he’s a famous basketball player, to boot!” (I’m making up a generic rom-com right now.) But Meg, herself — an architect, probably — is holding out for someone with brains. As well as being a famous basketball player. (I seem to be pitching a movie about middle-aged sports groupies. Producers can find my contact info below.)

Here’s my point: No one in your script should be a random character. Every individual presented in the universe of your movie is an opportunity to calibrate exactly who your protagonist is, reflect them like a slightly — or extremely — exaggerated funhouse mirror, and deepen our understanding of his or her heart, mind, and soul. The assortment of people you surround your hero with is a carefully determined constellation orbiting the main object of your story.

So ask yourself this: What kind of person would your protagonist be if he made a left rather than a right? What people in his or her life will reveal the most about them?

Your exercise is twofold: First, start watching movies (and reading screenplays) with this concept in mind. How does every other character reflect some aspect of your protagonist’s personality and life choices?

Second, plot out a quick thumbnail description of your hero. You could write out a set of bullet points or, like the improvisational acting exercise I shared, you could flip open a dictionary for a one-word suggestion and write a short monologue. Then, come up with ten other characters to best contrast and reveal your main subject’s personality. Start with the simplest and most obvious people you can imagine in their life…and then work outward. Allow yourself to be surprised at what you come up with, and you may well be on your way to discovering an ideal cast of characters.

Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter to @BrettWean. They’ll be considered for a future installment.

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