Interesting Characters, Interested Viewers
Great storytelling requires interesting characters, preferably those that possess some unexpected trait (Marge in Fargo, a tough cop who’s hugely pregnant, Fletcher the conductor in Whiplash, tough as nails in the classroom, tinkles on the ivories at the jazz club after hours).
You know your characters are awesome, but conveying that onscreen means that you have done the homework in order to know them intimately. The homework, by the way, is fun. Here’s a few tips and tricks to developing your characters into living, breathing people.
GETTING A CASE OF THE ‘WHAT IFS’
All people are curious about other people, and the ‘what ifs’ are as fun as eavesdropping at a bar or peeking through a telescope at people who don’t know you’re watching. Imagining scenarios of what is going on with each of our characters is a way to know them more intimately.
For instance, I survived Halloween and noted the myriad of dog costumes on many of the hounds on the Upper West Side in New York City. Dodging the Minecraft characters, princesses and Nightwing seeking candy, I mentally went through my current project and did a what if: What if every character in my story had a dog and was going to a Halloween party – what would their dog wear as a costume? It was really fun and it took about 4 minutes. For the nosy, it also takes 4 minutes to glom through approximately ½ a pound of candy mindlessly.
This is an exercise you can do on paper and in your head (especially when you encounter a vortex of weirdness). What if your character was in the following situation
- Alone at a serious traffic accident
- In the Oval Office welcoming the President on his first day of the new term
- On the subway where unruly kids are screaming
- Locked in a bank vault with 15 scared customers
- Winning $1 million at a poker game
- Held at gunpoint by a 12-year old in a dark alley
- In the checkout line with no money
It’s an addictive imagination sport and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Start your writing with a few minutes of this every day, then you’ll find yourself doing it while going about life, building to imagining these scenarios at completely inappropriate moments.
Related to the character development are the extremes one will go to when pushed. A recent project I worked on featured a main character who gets to the end of her rope and completely loses it. How your hero will melt down should contrast with your villain, and the number of ways we can go nuts is as infinite as there are variety of snowflakes.
You may feel a little bit evil about it but that’s ok, take your main character on a meltdown and describe it vividly. Then try it on your villain. When you’re done, if you feel highly emotional, then you’re on to something!
For inspiration, check out some famous meltdowns here, courtesy of Movie Clips!
Thank you, Haifa International Film Festival
Recently, I spent several days at the Haifa Film Festival in Israel, having a great time. The experience of meeting screenwriters and filmmakers is always a growth opportunity for me, hearing new stories and narratives coming from different cultural direction adds perspective. Invigorating!
Music playlist right now: Bach Brandenburg Concertos
As an American, I’ve grown up with some of the best films in the world, but it is AWESOME to see movies from other countries and wow did I enjoy being steeped in filmmakers from other places. A few recommendations, and while I’m no movie critic, I know what I like and I’ve created a movie list you should see and why: Ida (Polish, a spare and beautiful masterpiece), Is That You? (Israel, USA, touching), Yona (Israel, historical, amazing performance), Zero Motivation (Israel, huge comedic hit), Diplomacy (French, how to turn a play into a film) and Hungry Hearts (Italian, USA, super disturbing yet elegant).
All of these films capture the essence of filmmaking from another culture that writers must connect to, because it is more critical than ever that our films can travel outside of America. Why do we care that our films appeal to viewers outside of the United States? It’s really a simple matter of math.
Potential Customers inside America: 320,000,000
Potential Customers outside America: 6,880,000,000
Compelling figures, right? More than 6 billion possible customers for your film live outside of the United States.
Anyway, the seminars I conducted with producer Stephen Greenwald were all about the business of getting your film made and we worked with wonderful filmmakers forging fascinating projects. Additionally, it was a pleasure to meet screenwriters who also coach and teach, notably Julie Gray and Ken Aguero.
Julie Gray is cultivating stories from voices we need to hear, and don’t hear enough of. Julie rocks the screenwriting world by helping writers meet their goals and break in. She is setting Tel Aviv writers on fire and all across Israel and the world. Check her out – here on Script Magazine and everywhere else! I just ordered her book and cannot wait to check it out. Her sensibility is visceral and immediate, as evidenced by a paragraph such as this from her Huffington Post article:
“I was a self-described Toxic Nice Girl for most of my life. A Conflict Avoiding Ninja. ‘It’s okay’ was emblazoned on my forehead. You know the deal.”
The other wonderful screenwriter, producer and pitch guru I met is Ken Aguado whose book The Hollywood Pitching Bible I love and would recommend to anyone. No, really, anyone. Not just writers. What’s great about Ken’s book is that if you ever have to pitch something, your business, yourself, goods and services for your company or non profit, or you are raising money, or you need to connect with someone in a way to introduce, pitch and sell them an idea, no matter what it is, this book can help you. In my consulting work with startups and media companies, I am now recommending this book because the bones are great.
My shoutout today wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t raise the roof for screenwriting coach Marilyn Horowitz – her new book comes out on December 1st on Kindle – The Book of Zev – PLEASE buy this book on 12/1/14 – it is a bargain at $0.99 and this marketing push will bump her Amazon numbers. As an aside, it’s an exciting read, and makes for a wonderful gift!
Thanks for your eyeball time.
Rock your writing,
- More articles by Paula Landry
- Meet the Reader: ‘Unlikeable’ Characters
- FREE video on Creating Dynamic Characters
Get more help creating characters with Screenwriters University’s On Demand class
Construct Compelling Characters