Friday, February 8, 2013

Cutting and Combining Characters

One of the problems that effects many screenplays is too many characters. Even in stories with a strong main character there can be a small army of minor characters cluttering up the action. Good writers will make an attempt to cut and combine characters whenever possible.

Why is having a lot of characters bad? Well, for one thing it can be hard for the audience to keep track of who is who. Also, when you have a lot of minor characters it gets difficult to fully develop any of them. You have a lot of one-dimensional pawns running around instead of living, breathing people that you can use to expand the ideas and themes of your story.

This isn’t to say fewer is always better. Would The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) have been better with a gang of three criminals instead of five? Most certainly not. But I thought Contagion (written by Scott Z. Burns) and Love Actually (written by Richard Curtis) suffered from too many characters. You didn’t have any time to get to know or care about many of the characters.

I am not immune to this. In the draft of Sweet Home Alabama that I originally sold, the character of Andrew (played by Patrick Dempsey) had two parents – a politician father and an overprotective mother. Those parents were combined into a single character – his mother (played by Candice Bergen) in the movie. I don’t miss the character of the father at all, and the result is a stronger, more dimensional supporting character that was juicier and attracted a star.

Most of the time you don’t want more than one character performing the same plot/story function. You probably don’t need two mentors advising your hero, or two friends to serve as sounding boards – though if each of those friends also serves another purpose that could justify their presence. Redundant characters can usually be combined into a single person.

Ideally each significant character will represent some alternate viewpoint on the theme. In Up In the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) Ryan has two sisters – one who demonstrates the upside of marriage and one the downside. Natalie shows an idealized vision of love and Alex a more cynical version. There are no duplicate points of view, no third sister who also has a failing marriage.

True stories can present a particular challenge because it can be hard to let go of someone who was really involved. But many historical movies combine multiple people who each performed one small role in an event into a single person who is more involved throughout the story. Also, they often cut out people who were present but not actively involved. Sometimes five children become three, for example. It makes for a better movie and as long as it doesn’t radically misrepresent events, few people will mind.

I always take a look at my list of significant minor characters in the outline phase and consider whether any can be cut or combined. This exercise can produce surprising benefits. In my latest script, for example, I needed the main character’s best friend to have a troubled marriage and I needed the main character to have a business rival. The best friend’s husband was active mostly in the first half of the story, the rival in the second half. Then I asked myself, what if I combined them?

It was hard to get my head around it at first, but once I did the resulting character became exponentially richer and more complex. Plus, suddenly there was a whole other layer of subtext to the scenes – the best friend’s loyalty. If her husband is also her friend’s business rival, then she’s caught between two loyalties. Combining those two characters added unexpected dimension to a third.

And that’s a good thing because after doing some research I realized there are other people that would have to be involved in the main character’s business. Suddenly I have several new characters I have to work into my outline. I’m going to look at where I can combine those roles with existing characters, and where I can’t, I’ll look for how I can have those characters offer a distinct point of view on some element of the story.

That’s another good thing to think about – if a character simply has to be present in the movie for logic or plot mechanics, give them an individual take on a thematic element of the story. You might have them represent a potential future for the character if they make a certain choice, for example.

I mentioned I go through this analysis in the outline phase. There is a good chance you'll have to go through it again in the rewrite phase. Things change as you write and you may end up with redundant characters despite your best efforts. It's always wise to consider whether every character is really pulling their weight when you rewrite.

The goal here is not to write screenplays with as few characters as possible. The goal is to make sure that every character performs a vital role in the story. You have such limited time in a movie that you don’t want to waste any of it.


russianreturn said...

Hi, could you please name some characters in the historic movies you mentioned that combines multiple people into one character? Thanks!

BabyzName said...

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