Monday, 22 March 2010

Developing characters in screenplays

Okay, so the last screenwriting session I attended was about character. There are three basics of character:

1) External elements e.g.

- gender
- age
- physical distinctions (eye colour, hair, skin, build etc)
- movement (facial expressions, the way they walk, mannerisms)
- verbal expression (slang, pitch, speed of voice etc)
- appearance (clothes, cleanliness, style etc)
- sexuality (how is it expressed)
- tension/pleasure (how are they expressed)

2) Inner elements e.g.

- intelligence and knowledge
- introvert or extrovert
- temperament and quality of judgement
- what do they like/dislike about themselves?
- what or who do they care about most?
- self image
- what do they want in the future?
- what do they fear?

3) Context e.g.

- relationships (friends, family, lovers, co-workers etc)
- culture (birthplace, education, occupations, nationality, ethnicity etc)
- their past (both personal and within the confines of the story).

Very early on in the session we watched how Jack Nicholson's character is introduced in the credits of 'As Good As it Gets'. How, we were asked, is his character portrayed and what devices did the screenwriter use? We talked about the way the female neighbour's expression changed when she saw him, the way the MC tries to get the 'little doggie' into the lift and then chucks him down the garbage shoot, about the language he uses and his attitude when he talks to his gay neighbour and the way his OCD is introduced when he locks and unlocks his front door and flips the light switch on and off.

We discussed the fact that Jack Nicholson's character is a racist, homophobic, rude, inappropriate and unlikeable but we still find him compelling. Why? Because he's unusual and interesting. All of his flaws are on show.

I've been thinking about flawed characters since that question. WHY did I find the rapist, paedophile character of T-Bag so compelling in Prison Break (so compelling in fact that I didn't want him to die!)? Why are people so fascinated with Tony Soprano? (I've recently started watching the Sopranos for the first time and found the early scene with him wading into his swimming pool to feed the ducks really interesting. A bit like the whole 'make your main character sympathetic by having him be nice to a dog' thing). Why is Hannibal Lector so fascinating in Silence of the Lambs?

Anyway, something the tutor said is equally applicable to novel-writing and screenwriter - "You only get the opportunity to introduce a character once so find a way to give the audience/reader a handle on that character".

In films there are five different ways to introduce the audience to a character (often more than one are used):

1) A snipped of their childhood (e.g. Broadcast News)
2) Their relationship with their family
3) Their reputation (e.g. Clint Eastwood's character in 'Unforgiven'. People talk about him before he's introduced)
4) Pure visuals (e.g. Audrey Hepburn's character walking through the streets in the opening of Breakfast at Tiffanys)
5) Through voiceover (e.g. Adaptation or Transpotting)

Something else the tutor pointed out, and this is definitely true of novel writing, make sure that your character WANTS something (really badly) at the start of the novel and make sure they pursue that desire actively. Over the course of the film, or novel, the character changes - often realises there's more to life than what they want. In my novel, Heaven Can Wait, Lucy wants to be reunited with Dan more than anything in the world and the central plot is entirely focused on her attempts to try and make that happen. Does she change and learn anything by the end of the novel? Yes...but I won't say more than that in case you haven't read it yet!

Anyway, back to character. Towards the end of the session we interviewed each other as though we were the main characters in our short films. We were asked the following questions:

1) How old are you?
2) What is your family set-up?
3) Where do you live?
4) What sort of house?
5) Who do you live with?
6) What do you do for work?
7) What are your hobbies?
8) What makes you angry? (I thought this was a really interesting question and I had to think for a bit to work out what WOULD make my character angry)
9) When were you happiest (also a good question I think)
10) Faced with new situations how do you respond? (If you can nail your answer to this one you've got a good handle on your character's personality)

We were then asked questions specific to the character within the film:

1) Who are you?
2) What do you want?
3) What stopped you from getting what you want (in the film)?
4) Who helps?
5) What else stopped you?
6) When will you know you have what you need?

Okay, that just about covers it. You can probably tell from the scrappy way I've pieced this together that I haven't totally worked out how character in screenplays tie in with characters in novels but I think there's a lot of thought provoking stuff there. I hope you think so too!


Nik Perring said...

Interesting, interesting, interesting! Thanks for posting, Cally.

womagwriter said...

Definitely thought-provoking, thank you Cally!

JJ Beattie said...

Yes, I do think there's lots of interesting stuff here. I shall be back to look at this. Thanks Cally.

SueG said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks. And it's really all applicable to everything we write, isn't it. Especially the "visual" genres like playwriting. But I also think the idea of ensuring the character wants something desperately and then pursues it is especially helpful. I struggle with plot - this is a great way to think about it. Thanks.

Karen said...

I LOVED T-bag - so fantastically deranged - so I totally know where you're coming from there!

I found asking all my characters questions like that really helped to make them feel 'real.'

Great post :o)

Jumbly Girl said...

Wow - started reading this and began making notes about how it applied to the characters in my novel - an hour later I think I may have just untangled a big knot - thank you!

Fia said...

As always you're so generous with these postings.

Thanks Cally.

B said...

as another example of a character that is (VERY) flawed i would suggest Ben from Lost. he was the most evil of evil people for a long time, and yet this season he is becoming someone that people are rooting for. it's partly the way it's acted, but honestly - after this season is finished i'm going to rewatch, and figure out how the HELL the writers did that. they made me care about someone i HATED. that's pure skill.

thanks so much for this post. gives me a lot to think about!

Bernadette said...

A very interesting post, Cally.

TQE said...

Hi Cally,
How did you get the idea to write on writing such a comprehensive guide on screenplays? where did you get ideas from?
thesis papers