Friday, August 10, 2012

The Character Passes

Last post I talked about the rewriting process I’m going through on my current spec. The task I’m engaged in now is what I call “The Character Passes.” This is one of the final stages of my rewrite process. The concept is pretty simple: I go through the script just looking at one character. I do this for each of the major characters.

Before I read each scene with the character I’m looking at (I skip the scenes they’re not in), I think about what this character’s goal is in the scene and where they are in their arc. I consider their actions and ask if this is what they’d really do. If the answer is no, the scene might require some significant revision.

But usually I’ve done a pretty good job keeping the characters’ actions consistent. If I’m finding a lot of scenes that need major changes, I’m probably not as far along as I thought I was and need to take another plot pass! Really the purpose of the character passes is dialogue.

Before I do a pass, I try to get the voice of that character in my head. One of the ways I do this is with my character diary exercise.* I usually do these as part of my pre-writing, but for these passes I’ll do a quick version of the exercise – basically writing a few paragraphs in the character’s voice just describing their day before I start the pass.

I also jot down some vocabulary the character uses – words related to their occupation, class, or culture. I find writing these down longhand helps ingrain them in my mind. And I jot down some sayings the character uses that reflect their philosophy on life. Remember how in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) Rick said "I stick my neck out for no man" and "Here's looking at you kid" several times? Those are the kinds of defining phrases I'm hoping for.

One of the characters in my current script is a business executive who uses lots of management buzzwords. So for her pass, I jotted down things like “outside the box,” "synergy," and “risk-reward.”

In the previous drafts I had that character use a lot of established business philosophy and actual quotes. But I decided I wanted to create something original for the film. So I made up my own business philosophy and constructed some buzzwords and motivational sayings that will be unique. I did this so my script would have original dialogue rather than clichés – though the clichés would have served my purpose in this case.

I also try to do this with the philosophical sayings. What I’ll often do is take a common saying and try to come up with something that says the equivalent in a different way. So if the character believes in “thinking outside the box,” I might give them a saying like, “We need to fly beyond the nest.”

As I go through the script, I try only to look at that character’s dialogue. Then, anything that doesn’t fit their voice jumps out. If an uneducated character uses a big vocabulary word, I’ll catch it and can adjust it to be more in their voice. And I’ll usually find many opportunities to adjust dialogue to be more original and unique.

Once I’ve done this for all my characters, the result is a script where each character speaks in a believable and revealing way.

*I was looking for the post I did on the character diary exercise so I could link to it, and realized I’ve never posted about it! I will rectify that in my next post.

By the way, this blog is now being run on the website You’ve Got Red on You. It’s a site devoted to horror and horror writing. If you’re interested in the genre, do yourself a favor and check it out.

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