Five years ago I interviewed several screenwriters about their process of developing characters. One of those writers was Eric Heisserer, who at the time had written mostly horror movies such as the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. Since then, he has done several more movies, including writing and directing the wonderful independent film Hours starring Paul Walker. But this year has been a banner year for Eric. He adapted the movie Lights Out from a viral video. It grossed over $67 million worldwide on a budget of about $5 million. And he adapted a short story into this weekend's critical and commercial success, Arrival. I saw Arrival last night, and it's fantastic.
So, in light of that, I thought I would re-publish my interview with Eric. He's obviously got something figured out!
Q. What is required for a compelling character?
They have to want something, and it's a want that drives them through every scene. This want can change over the course of the narrative, particularly if the character realizes that they have a need greater than their want. Next, that character needs adversity as powerful as their want. If you have a character get what they want with no resistance, we aren't really compelled to follow the story. Conflict is the breeding ground for compelling character. After that, it's a matter of window dressing. While it may not be absolutely required, something I find that really helps cement the character is a trait or two that feels grounded and realistic, something plucked from someone you know. Anchor the character in reality, even if it's just in a behavior or mannerism you've seen in your spouse, your friend, your coworker, etc.
Q. What is your approach to building a character?
My approach is sloppy and unstructured. Generally speaking, there are two approaches to story. Some begin with the question, "What if..." and others start with, "There's a guy (or gal) who..." Basically one is concept-centric and the other is character-centric. I used to be focused on concept, and would work outside-in toward character, populating my concept with people who could exploit it. What I've discovered after many years of bad writing and trial-and-error is that the two need to be married. So now I begin my story with, "What if there's a guy who..."
My litmus test when I'm first writing for a character is: I picture myself in a meeting with an actor. The actor is asking me questions about the character. I am putting lines in this person's mouth, and it has to come from an authentic place. If the actor is asking me about motivation or objectives, then my character is undercooked. I haven't yet made it compelling. So, back to the drawing board.
Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?
I don't do much back story work, save for that which grows naturally out of the want/need I give the character. If a character wants to be a pilot, for example, then I can choose whether that want comes from a lust for life, or from fear. Perhaps my character has had dreams of flying among the clouds, or of breaking free from the world at ground level. Or maybe this is an escape from a terrible domestic life. Or the character is haunted by a parent's wish/warning. The want will dictate the backstory, in terms of what is pertinent to the narrative I'm trying to tell.
Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?
I must know what they want to accomplish. What is the result they want by the end of the story? My characters need to tell me how they want the story to end, and there has to be at least two completely different endings in those answers, or else I don't have any conflict.
Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?
I have to base my characters on behaviors, speech styles, and mannerisms I've observed in real people, or else they won't feel real themselves. But I tend to avoid basing a character on an actual person, because reality can get in the way of my story (unless of course the point of the story is biographical in nature). I have begun to place actors in my roles, because it's great shorthand for talking with studio execs later, and sometimes it can help me find dialogue when I get stuck.
Thanks again, Eric! And for my readers, go see Arrival. It's worth it!
The Three Stages of Screenwriting
"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review