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Great Characters: Channeling the Genius of Actors - Gene Wilder

Paula Landry demonstrates how to create great characters by channeling the genius of actors into your writing. Using talents like actor Gene Wilder to inspire you can fuel your writing.

Paula Landry, MBA, is a writer/producer and consultant helping writers create strategies for INSPIRation, MOTIVATion & ACTivation to excel, improve storytelling, fusing business & creativity. Landry creates media business plans, marketing plans, movie budgets, coaching artists and teaching film business classes at NYU, SVA, Wagner College and MCNY. She’s co-authored This Business of FILM; and Sell Your Screenplay; and is the author of Scheduling and Budgeting Your Film. Connect via LinkedIn, @paulalandry on Twitter, email: or Facebook #filmdreamers #mediaentrepreneurs #aflickchick

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Great Characters: Channeling the Genius of Actors - Gene Wilder by Paula Landry | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Gene Wilder is the mad scientist in Young Frankenstein

There’s some debate about writing for a particular actor in mind in order to create great characters. Some people who say yes, do it, and people who say do not. Your mindset about is key inside this decision.

Should I Write For A Specific Actor?

Deciding at the outset of your project who could be the perfect person to play your character will help you identify the character type, which is helpful. Choosing one actor only who could perform the role is not a good idea if it is a major star, primarily for the reason that it is easy to identify a star actor and the chances of getting the project to them, past their agent, for the actor to read it, are so very, very low. I’ve had the pleasure of reading scripts that were very good, but were based on a specific actor, and literally, without that actor, the film couldn’t get made. That’s a big gamble. Should you tailor your great characters to more obscure performers and write certain scripts as a potential vehicle for them? The answer is maybe, if you can be flexible enough to adjust should that actor pass on your spec script. Furthermore, this type of thinking is on the right path because we are designing our characters, and we can do two things to create vivid characters:

  • Chose a specific type; and
  • Mentally cast your favorite actor

Character Types

First of all, there are many character types, and cross breeding among them; from the tortured artist like Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis in Miles Ahead; to the ingénue which we see in many stories, that wholesome and endearing female, such as Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man. The list of character types is long, and therefore, once you chose a type, you can then emphasize certain personality attributes which will make them more interesting. For example this is a small sample of character types (aside from our villain and heroine);

  • Bad Boy – charming rogue
  • Noble Savage – idealized outsider
  • Wise Fool – underestimated character with unexpected wisdom
  • Yokel – unsophisticated and naïve person
  • Outcast with a heart of gold – (drug lord, hooker, crazy person, etc)
  • Mad Scientist – person who is smart but misuses their brilliance

No doubt, you can think of hundreds more. There are many places to get ideas about these. Of course when we think about specific types, we remember our favorite actors playing those roles, so we can borrow that performer’s energy for our characters.

Channel the Inspiration and Energy of a Star

Certain performers provide the perfect energy in a role on screen, offering that perfect storm of role, person, timing, direction, talent – it’s usually a combination of all of this. Think of Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger as The Joker character in the Batman franchise, creating a larger-than-life presence through gestures, intonation, presence, with a chemistry that is both physical and mental.

Learning a few movies by heart where you can recite the lines in your sleep, and feel the performances in your bones is one way to pull star performances into your writing. One of the many films I’ve watched way too many times, for the writing and the character electricity is Young Frankenstein. My mother and I together must have watched the film over 50 times, finishing the lines, rewinding to see Gene Wilder’s facial expressions, along with the rest of the cast. In the vein of the greats like Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin, Gene Wilder is an example of a performer who infused great characters with an in-depth personality. While the world will miss him, we have the gift of his many performances and films.

Great Characters: Channeling the Genius of Actors - Gene Wilder by Paula Landry | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Gene Wilder as the Great Character, Willy Wonka

Channeling a Mad Scientist, Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein

I can’t think of a more delightful and visceral blend of neuroses, delight and manic anxiety, (watch his eyeballs and mouth), than the varied performances by Gene Wilder. I’m dedicating this to him for his classic and unforgettable work. If you need a multi-layered mad scientist, the crazed doctor creating his monster in Young Frankenstein, written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, is a good place to start borrow inspiration.

The scene in the beginning of the film that sets Young Dr. Frankenstein up as an over-the top, potential psychotic. Young Dr. Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder, is queried by a medical student in front of the class he is teaching. Up until that moment, the young doctor seems normal. A student persists in pushing his professor by asking about the Young Dr. Frankenstein’s grandfather’s work, attempting to reanimate corpses, and it is met by an overblown reaction that hints at where the character can go, and his childish, tempestuous nature. We see the break in the professional façade and a hint of what is to come.

Script Excerpt: Young Frankenstein

…Doesn’t the bringing back
to life what was once dead
– hold any intrigue for you?

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)
My grandfather was a sick man.

But as a Franken… as a
‘Fronkonsteen,’ aren’t you
the least bit curious about it,
Doctor? Doesn’t the bringing back
to life what was once dead
– hold any intrigue for you?

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)
You are talking about the
nonsensical ravings of a
lunatic mind. Dead is dead!

But look at what’s
been done with
hearts and kidneys?

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)
Hearts and kidneys
are Tinker Toys!
I’m talking about the
central nervous system

But, sir…

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)
I a scientist…! Not a philosopher.
(holds up his scalpel)
You have more chance of
reanimating this scalpel than
you have of mending a
broken nervous system.

But your grandfather’s work, sir!

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)
My grandfather’s work was Doo-Doo!
I’m not interested in death!
There is only one thing that concerns me,
and that is the preservation of LIFE!

POLITE APPLAUSE. However, on the word, “Life,” Freddy has plunged the scalpel into his thigh by mistake. No one but Freddy and the Movie Audience is aware of this.

FREDDY (Dr. Young Frankenstein)

You can watch the scene here and it’s just fabulous.

And the screenplay is here.

Read and Watch for Great Characters

I highly advise watching a movie and reading the screenplay together – Young Frankenstein is a good time either way. The film is a great example of writing that embodies the essence of what great characters provide when matched with the capability of brilliant actors. Humor, creepiness and something so ridiculous you can watch it many times. My friend and gifted writer Virgil Goya would crack each other up with just an utterance of “We’ve all got to act normal” which is the moment in the film when the Gene Wilder’s character comes unhinged, his eyes bulge out at the precise moment his bow tie flies open as he’s terrified that strangers will learn about his experiments gone awry.

Gene Wilder as an actor is a good model for a particular blend of manic hilarity, neurotic and eccentric, sad and funny person. There are other examples, like Danny Devito in Throw Momma From The Train, Woody Allen in his early films, and Charlie Chaplin in City Lights. If you’re looking for characters with color to fuel your own, watch Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka or The Producers, to borrow some of his genius.

Next Level Character Creation and Development

Finally, while watching a movie and noting an actor's specific mannerisms are one powerful way to add depth and flavor to a role, there are many tools to help you with the work from the ground up. One solid resource to build great characters is a webinar by the talented Jeanne Veillette Bowerman that will give you help, step by step. It's called Creating Dynamic Characters - From Outline to Rewrite.

Creating Dynamic Characters Webinar