Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Character Development

As I’m outlining the story of my scripts I’m simultaneously developing the major characters. At some point in the process (hopefully), something “clicks” in my head and the characters starts to feel like real people. Once that happens it gets significantly easier to write scenes. I don’t have to consciously think about what the character's traits are. They just talk to me in their own voice. I try not to start writing until I get that “click” for all my major characters.

Many books on writing recommend developing your character by writing a detailed biography of their life. It makes logical sense. If who we are today is a result of our accumulated past experiences then figuring out our character's past experiences should tell us who they are today.

Except in my experience it doesn’t really work.

The trouble is if I’m trying to write down what happened to a character as a child, and I haven’t yet cracked that character, then the results always seem mechanical and forced. Not organic. The “click” seems to get farther away, not closer. It turns out I can’t tell you who a character was until I know who they are.

In other words, I don’t find my character by developing their back-story; I find their back-story by developing the character.

Now maybe that’s just me. But I’ve asked several working writers about this and every one of them tells me it’s the same for them. If writing biography first works for you, then good, absolutely you should do that. If it doesn’t work for you, though, don’t worry. You’re in good company.

So then how do I develop character? Good question! Usually the initial source of the story idea, whatever it was, will suggest at least some aspects of the major characters. The first thing I do is identify the main character’s want and need, which are usually dictated by the story and theme. I’ll also think about the want and need of the other major characters.

Next I think about the personality traits and demographic elements that are suggested by the things I already know about the character. If the story is about a doctor, then I know he’s going to be well educated. I’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. I’ll think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.

While I’m doing this I’ll also look for contradictions – character aspects that separate my character from the norm. What if my doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony. Some things will feel right, others won’t. I just keep asking the questions, figuring out what kind of guy he is. And this is pre-writing. I can always change my mind if something doesn’t work out.

I’m looking to fill in the key blanks of personality, demographics and beliefs. I don’t have a checklist. That’s too mechanical for my tastes. I approach it more like brainstorming, letting one decision lead to the next. And this will happen over weeks or even months, concurrent to outlining the story.

For personality I’m placing the character on the scales from caring to selfish, aggressive to passive, smart to dumb, ambitious to lazy… and so on. For demographics I’m defining where they are on the various social scales – wealth, popularity, class, religious upbringing, politics, age, etc. For belief systems I’m figuring out their opinions about religion, politics, sex, relationships, race, etc.

The key here is to be specific. The more specific you are the more real the character feels. It’s a paradox of storytelling that the audience identifies more with a character who feels real – even if they aren’t much like the audience member – than a more generic character. So rather than saying the character is a protestant, I’ll decide she was raised Presbyterian but now only goes to church on Easter and Christmas Eve.

And at some point I get the “click.”

Then I can begin to figure out the character’s biography. Some biographical information will likely be necessary for the story. Sweet Home Alabama was about a woman who had to get a divorce from the high school boyfriend she married then ran out on. Obviously I had to figure out why they got married and why she left.

It’s also useful to develop some biography that will never find its way into the script. If you say a character is greedy the audience will believe you – you don’t have to explain the experiences that made them that way if it isn’t relevant to the story. It may be helpful to you, though, to know those experiences.

But, like research, biography can be a way to avoid actually writing. You probably don’t need to know the name of your character’s third grade teacher to write the script. Once you get that “click” you are good to go.

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