Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
“I don’t write screenplay character biographies beforehand. I usually go in knowing some sequences: this is where I want to start, this is where I want to end.”– John Sayles
“Character arcs always seem to be a big issue with film studio executives . . . so the inevitable questions were posed: What was her emotional journey? How does she change? Is she a rich little snob who learns to embrace the less fortunate when she becomes penniless or is she a racist who becomes more liberal when she . . . yawn yawn.”–Elizabeth Chandler
One of the highest compliments any writer can hear is: “Your movie brought back memories of my brother. He died last year….” Or, “Your movie meant so much to me. My mother was the same way…”
Strike a chord in people. Write something that resonates. Synthesize what resonates with you personally into something that resonates for an audience as universal. That is—as Frank Zappa once said—the crux of the biscuit.
Sounds crazy, but this is exactly where great characters are found, very near to the proverbial biscuit. Why?
Consider this: In all moviedom, there are only three types of characters:
1) Characters that exist in the real world.
2) Characters that are wholly invented by you, the writer.
3) Characters that are a combination of #1 or #2.
As the writer, you are God. You decide every breath every character in your movie will take. Characters based on people you know in the real world can sometimes turn sentimental, you can lose perspective. Then again, if you base them entirely on fiction, they may be stiff, lack real-life passion, details, or humor.
My choice is Column 3. The Frankenstein monster of part creation, part reality.
Often times what happens in real life cannot be believed, let alone invented. Ever see anyone eat baby back ribs like Uncle Rocky? How about your pal Mickey who works graveyard shift at the porno bookstore and feeds you dialogue no human being has ever uttered before. Grab a pen, write down every word Mickey says. Sunday afternoon on line at Target. 2 A.M. Saturday on the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line. You hear someone say something and it’s good. Grab a pen, get it down on paper. Assuming it’s not a passage from a published novel, if you recognize the genius of it and get it down, guess what? You just wrote it. It’s Life: Use it all.
Someone at the Post Office looks exactly like the antagonist you imagined in your story? Make note of every detail of his look; the way he moves, even what he says. Damn right it’s stranger than fiction! You cannot make up what the real world offers.
Here’s one way to sketch your characters:
Outline the major characters first, work down to key secondary/subplot characters. Try an INSIDE/OUT approach. People in life are never as they appear. How does the character appear to the world? What’s the façade? Write it down. Then write the inside. The underside. Please tell me Dick the Happy Mailman, clearly an excellent guy—pets all the dogs, helps housewives with their grocery bags—doesn’t go home to become…Dick the Happy Mail Man! Does the dinner dishes, helps the kids with their homework, etc. He looks like this...
People are not as they appear! If you want to bore the hell out of your audience, go ahead and make him the same guy he appears to be, see if your movie gets made. Dick The Happy Mailman needs some density, some dark side. Go ahead and pour some darkness into your good guy. While you're at it, pour some light into your bad guy. Walter White, Tony Soprano anyone? Back to Dick, might I suggest an alternative? As Tom Waits said: “What’s he building in there?”
Rumor has it Dick the Happy Mailman has been in the basement all week. Downstairs in the deep, dark, rat-infested basement. He brought his steel-rubber mallet with him because there’s been hammering. A hell of a lot of hammering. And what’s with the industrial-size lock and padded steel door? What's he up to? The guy has secrets. Like what your reader/audience wants to know. For me, in my movie, he looks more like this:
Believe it or not, I also think of classic French poetry here, Baudelaire’s Spleen and Ideal. What’s your character’s Ideal? What’s the Spleen? What’s at the heart of the character? What is unique about their look, or how they sound? Who are they when the movie starts? Who are they when it ends? Is there enough of an arc? What prevents them from becoming what they want to be? What do they love? Basic questions you want to consider when you draw up a character.
Remember that ideally a character’s inner personal journey should mesh with the outer narrative that drives story. So the character changes that occur tie directly into how the story plays out. If, in Rudy, the kid’s inner burning desire is to make the Notre Dame football team, the narrative will directly play out as he makes his long shot attempt to get into the school and team, of course culminating with him making the team and being carried off on the shoulders of the players. Inner character needs/wants merge and inform the outer story.
Some writers are big on doing “character interviews” where you and your character actually have a conversation. Others like to write pages of character biographies. I’m OK with these biographies, to a point. When am I not a fan? When these studies run four or five pages long, with questions like…
“Previous illnesses? Arthritis, allergies, tennis elbow? “Important highlights of the character’s first sexual experience? Describe the character’s general competence with children?”
Tennis elbow?! I would say when you’re down to questioning whether a character has tennis elbow, you’ve got enough detail. It’s time—please!—to start writing.
Write out the basics: How do your characters look and talk? Personal history that concerns plot? Relation to subplot characters? Inner and outer life that concerns plot? Character arc?
You want characters that generate empathy, who capture our sympathy, who get caught in a conflict and have to fight their way out. We want characters that fascinate, be it Amelie or Hannibal Lecter, Tony Montana or Ghandi. It helps if your characters have a sense of humor, or anger, or political outrage. To strike a chord in people, to synthesize the personal into the universal, have your characters react like real people. Pour yourself into the character. This is especially important with plausibility. Always ask, what would I do?
Who is the audience taking a ride on? Rooting for/against? Why am I paying $10+ to see your movie? Are your characters grey, not black and white cliches? The audience wants characters to take an emotional ride on, to relate to, to invest in, otherwise, why bother making the movie?
Have you examined exactly why you want to write this movie?
I remember hearing Judith Malina (founder of the Living Theater) speak on this subject. Her theatrical credits were without peer, but her face was little known on movie screens. She was Grandmama in The Adams Family, telling the audience that the movie paid for a year of her theater’s expenses. More interestingly, when someone asked how she picked creative projects, she said something so simple, it stays with me still: ”First, I ask: What is it, exactly, I want to say? Then I go about saying it.”
The internet is filled with how-to’s on character development, but I don’t think better advice exists. Characters are the sums of their wants, needs, and conflicts…yeah yeah, that’s all well and good, but how does that help you write better characters?
• ALWAYS ask yourself: What am I trying to say? When you figure it out, sketch out the protagonist/antagonist and subplot characters that allow you to say it.
• ALWAYS concern yourself with plausibility. Every moment in every scene. Ask: Would I do that? What would I do in the same situation?
• ALWAYS remember: Just because it happens in real life, doesn’t mean it has to happen that way in your movie. Also, one more harsh truth: Just because it happens to you, doesn’t make it a movie!
Keep the lesson of Dick The Happy Mailman close…
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- Screenwriter’s Guidepost: Is Screenplay Structure Theory Ruining Movies?
- Reel Story: Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work