For the last five posts I’ve interviewed professional writers on how they develop characters. (If you’d like to know my philosophy, you can read this post.) I had an ulterior motive for doing this: Many of the big how-to screenwriting books recommend a different character creation approach than I use. Typically it’s been pretty easy for me to dismiss these theories because the authors were not actually screenwriters. The books may have had many good ideas, but if something didn’t jibe with my actual writing experience I didn’t worry about it.
But then I was re-reading The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, and some of the stuff in there made a lot of sense and made me question my own process. It didn’t conflict with my approach exactly, but made me wonder if maybe I was missing something. So I decided to find out what other pros did.
I was reassured through these interviews that, in fact, my approach is pretty similar to what other professional writers do. I do think there are some really good ideas in Egri’s book. I’ll write a post soon about that… though I’ve misplaced the book so I have to get another copy first!
But let me look back for a moment on the five interviews. What struck me most was how similar many of the answers were. I truthfully wasn’t expecting that. Notice how many interviewees referenced some form of want and/or need as the most important thing to know about a character. Also notice that several mentioned the importance of choosing a character who will best exploit your story concept. And several said that they need to hear their characters "speak" to them before they are ready to write.
On the other hand, notice how little importance the interviewees gave to creating detailed backstories. This is something many books recommend that never seems to jibe with real life writers. Not that we ignore backstory, but these five interviewees and I only create the backstory as needed.
Other elements varied more from writer to writer. Some liked to use specific real people as the basis of their characters, others only steal particular quirks or habits. So that may be an area where you are best served just doing whatever makes you most comfortable.
And I believe that ultimately you have to find your own process – whatever works for you. However hearing how other writers do things, and paying particular attention to those things that crop up repeatedly from writer to writer, can help you find your process.
I’m going to move on from the character interviews now, but I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback on the last few posts, so I will definitely be doing more interviews on another specific topic in the future.