Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Character Interview - Chris Eboch

I'm going to continue my series of interviews about character development with my sister, novelist Chris Eboch.  I thought it might be interesting to see if a novelist approaches character differently than a screenwriter.

Chris Eboch's novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, an ancient Egyptian mystery; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series: The Ghost on the Stairs, The Riverboat Phantom, and The Knight in the Shadows. In Haunted, a brother and sister travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. Read samples at www.chriseboch.com

Chris also writes for adults as Kris Bock. Rattled launches her new romantic suspense series featuring treasure hunting adventures in the Southwest. Read the first three chapters at www.krisbock.com or visit the Chris Eboch author page on Amazon for info about all of her books.

Q. What is required for a compelling character?

I think the best characters are fresh, real, and individual. Writers sometimes try to make a character more "universal" by avoiding specifics about their appearance, background or whatever, but that just makes the character vague and unknowable. Or writers try to make somebody wildly unique, and wind up with a character that doesn't feel real. But some of the best and most beloved characters are fairly ordinary, with perhaps some quirks. They're the kinds of people you would want to have as friends, because they are interesting and fun, but not so crazy that they are exhausting.

Of course, it depends on the genre. A wacky comedy may need wacky characters, while a romance needs characters you can like and care about, maybe even characters who remind you of yourself, so you can imagine you're sharing those adventures.

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

I tend to start with plot, a situation with inherent drama. Then I think about the best character for that plot. It has to be somebody who can handle the situation, but only with difficulty. In other words, the situation cannot be so far beyond the character that their success is unbelievable, but it shouldn't be so easy that we never doubt their ability to succeed.

The character should be someone who will change over the course of the story, who will learn and grow from the challenges. Sometimes the character will just pop into my head and start talking. Other times it's more of a struggle and I may tweak a character a lot before I get her right. I've learned not to start writing until my character feels real to me, or I just get in trouble. If you feel like you're moving your characters around like little action figures, that's probably a bad sign. If your characters occasionally dig in their heels and refuse to do what you want them to do, because it's out of character, you've probably created someone real.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

I have a long list of questions you can ask about your character, covering every detail of their childhood, family life, and favorite food, color, etc. But if a character feels real to me, I don't need that list, and if the character doesn't feel real, I'm not sure the list would help. I focus more on a few major events in their background that influence who they are and what they want.

For example, in my romantic suspense novel,
Rattled, Erin has always been a "good girl" who studied and worked hard and followed the rules. But she's not satisfied with her life, so she's trying to be more adventurous. That's her basic personality. Her last long-term relationship was with a guy who undermined her self-confidence, so she doesn't see what a catch she is. That affects how she deals with the hero. She's a history professor who started investigating legends of lost treasures for fun. That leads her into this particular adventure, when she find the clue to a great treasure. Those are the big things I needed to know to start the story. All the little things fell into place as I wrote. Because she felt real to me, I knew how she would react in each situation that came up, even if didn't know everything about her past.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

You need to know what your character wants and what she needs -- or what she thinks she wants and what she
really wants. If that want and need are opposed, you'll have more conflict and a more interesting story. As an example, in my middle grade novel The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt who wants to win a great dance contest. When one of her best friends disappears, she has to choose between preparing for her contest and finding/saving her friend. Making that choice helps her figure out what's really important to her. At the start of the story, she would have said winning the dance contest was the most important thing in the world. But is it really?

You can write a story where a character wants something without needing anything else, and that can work so long as the struggles to get it are hard enough. (Witness James Bond.) But if you make a character choose between two things, or struggle to get something only to realize it's not what he really needs, you'll have a more complex story and most likely a deeper theme. Plus, there's often an opportunity for comic relief -- in
The Eyes of Pharaoh, while the main character is spying on soldiers and princes, some of the other temple dancers are spying on her to find out what she has planned for the contest. The subplot with the dancers adds some levity to the more serious mystery.

Q. Do you base your characters on people you know?

Generally my characters aren't like anyone I know, except perhaps in small details here and there. In
Rattled, I did base the best friend on a good friend of mine, but I changed the real-life man to a fictional woman. And once I started writing, I didn't really think of the character as my real-life friend anymore. She became her own person.

Sometimes a friend will read one of my books and say, "Oh, that character is based on so-and-so." Or "That character is like you." Usually I'm surprised by the connection, but I suppose there are parts of me in everything I write. For my
Haunted series about a brother and sister traveling with a ghost hunter TV show, I write in the voice of a 13-year-old boy. I don't even know any 13-year-old boys. After the books came out, one of my friends suggested that I could write about the brother/sister relationship because of my own experience growing up with an older brother. Huh, who knew?

Thanks Chris!  Next I'll interview Eric Heisserer, writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the upcoming Final Destination 5 and The Thing.  He'll also soon be directing a film from his own script called Hours.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Character Interview - Paul Guay

Continuing my series of interviews on character, today we have Paul Guay.

Paul Guay’s films have grossed over half a billion dollars.  He conceived and co-wrote Liar, Liar and co-wrote The Little Rascals and Heartbreakers.  He’s working on several new projects, all of them with characters.  In his spare time, he is a script consultant.

Q.What is required for a compelling character?

For me, movies (and other narrative arts) consist of interesting people doing interesting things.
Compelling characters are heroes (or antiheroes) whose needs I care about.  

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

Story is character revealed in action.  It’s not either/or, plot or character; it’s and/and, both.  Therefore, I build story and character simultaneously.  

If I start with a central story idea, my first question is:   what kind of character (and what kind of needs) will let me get (or force me to get) the most out of that idea?  What kind of character arc will illuminate the idea and reveal the character in the most fulfilling way?  

What is the most satisfying journey for this character to go on?  And who is the most satisfying character to go on this journey?

That said, I don't really know my characters till they start to talk.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

None per se.  I don’t know what my hero wore when he was nine.  But I do jot down every idea and characteristic and line of dialogue and scene and setpiece that comes to mind while I’m brainstorming.  Some of them will wind up in the final script, fleshing out my character, and I have the rest to draw on if I need them.

Sometimes, of course, a script will call for a backstory to be articulated by one character or another, or shown onscreen.  In those cases, I steal.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

His height.  And what he needs.

Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?

I don’t base my characters on people I know, but I do borrow some of their characteristics – their walks, their interests, their idiosyncrasies.

Some of my characters are partly autobiographical, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful in persuading studios to pay me $15 million to act in my films.  So I have to settle for stars.    

When I first started writing, I was aiming at Tom Hanks and Steve Martin.  Liar, Liar wasn’t written for one particular star, but it attracted first Hugh Grant and then Jim Carrey.  When my then-partner and I rewrote Heartbreakers we weren’t writing for one particular star, but the script attracted first Anjelica Huston and Alicia Silverstone, then Cher, then Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt.  And for a cameo in The Little Rascals we landed our next President, Donald Trump.  So you never know.

Thanks Paul!  Next up I thought we’d hear from a novelist - my sister, Chris Eboch, who has several published novels including The Well of Sacrifice, The Eyes of Pharaoh and the Haunted series.   It will be interesting to see if she has a different take on creating character than the screenwriters.  After that, we’ll hear from Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Character Interview - Ross LaManna

I’m going to spend the next few posts interviewing successful writers about their process of character development.   We’ll start today with Ross LaManna. 

Ross LaManna is the creator of the popular Rush Hour franchise (he has story and screenplay credit on the first movie).  He also wrote the novel Acid Test and is Undergraduate Chairman for the Film Department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.  He is currently developing several reality TV shows.

Q. What is required for a compelling character?

Likability.  Yeah, I know some movies have anti-heroes, but the ones that succeed with that are the exception that prove the rule.

Pluck and determination.

Being an underdog really helps.  Have you never met anyone, no matter how successful or powerful, who doesn't identify with the underdog?  

Positive aspirations.  Look at the top 10, 25 or 100 films of all time.  The vast majority of them feature characters with what most people would consider to be, well, heroic, old-fashioned, good-guy attitudes and motivations.

Aside from good storytelling, there is a really important reason why your lead character must have sufficient dramatic meat — in order to attract a star. It's nearly impossible to get a movie made without one.   

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

This kind of stuff I usually write is more plot-driven than character-driven, so I'm always mindful of giving the hero the background and skills necessary to do the things the plot demands of him, and create this background in a somewhat fresh way.  For instance, in my novel
Acid Test, I needed a hero who had a broad range of law-enforcement and military skills, but I didn't want him to be an FBI/CIA/cop cliché.  Research uncovered an interesting variation — USAF Office of Special Investigations.  They're trained like FBI, often have other military skills, but have no jurisdiction off of military bases.  So, unlike 007's license to kill, this hero has real-life limitations, which create impediments and, therefore, some additional drama.    

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

It varies, but I like to at least know a broad emotional and demographic background along with the practical background discussed above.  

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

One should start a character off in a place of need or crisis, so that the process of the story unfolding is also the process of taking them through some emotional changes. The best stories seamlessly integrate the hero's emotional journey with the progression of the plot.  For instance, in
Casablanca, Rick's journey from cynicism to selflessness drives the story as well as his character arc.  

Thanks Ross!  Next up we’ll hear from Paul Guay, screenwriter on Liar, Liar, Little Rascals and Heartbreakers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Star Vehicle Examples

 (SPOILERS: Die Hard, Notting Hill, True Grit, Iron Man)

Last post I discussed tools for writing star parts.  Let’s look at how a few movies use these techniques.

Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza)
John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) is a great example of a role that elevates a genre film with a character that a star would love to play.  McClane is extremely likeable – he’s an ordinary guy who sits in the front seat of the limo sent to pick him up from the airport.  He’s exceptionally competent, remaining calm in tense situations; using clever, makeshift weapons; and defeating the bad guys with his brain rather than his brawn.  He’s also an underdog – a lone, shoeless guy facing off against a brilliant nemesis with a horde of heavily armed henchmen.

But McClane has a flaw.  His marriage is falling apart.  His arc is learning to appreciate his wife’s ambition.  It adds emotional depth to the great action plotting and allows Bruce Willis to play a range of emotions besides glib tough guy.  At various times he’s afraid, angry, wistful, and despondent.  He’s also able to show a lighter side when he pals around with Sergeant Powell over the walkie talkie.  And, the emotional subplot gives McClane the chance to deliver a great monologue when he asks Powell to tell his wife he’s sorry. 

Finally, think of all the great lines Bruce Willis gets to deliver: “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...”  “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.”  “Who's driving this car, Stevie Wonder?” and the classic, “Yipee-ki-ay…” well I’ll let you finish that one for yourself.

Notting Hill (written by Richard Curtis)
Notting Hill has two big movie star roles.  The writer makes William (played by Hugh Grant) likeable by showing that he treats people with kindness.  Particularly, he treats movie star Anna (Julia Roberts) as a normal person, which she appreciates.  Her character is a little tougher to make likeable since she’s rich and famous, but they give her an appealing underdog quality by dramatizing how she’s trapped by that fame and the strange demands of the job.  She also treats people well, particularly William's family in the birthday party scene, and we see that she’s emotionally fragile.

Both characters are also given flaws.  Anna has a temper and can jump to conclusions.  William is a little unassertive and awkward.  This makes the characters more well rounded and interesting for the actors.  And because it’s a romantic comedy, both characters naturally go through a range of emotion: sad, happy, in love, angry, horny, and heartbroken.  Particularly nice is when the paparazzi find out Anna is at William’s house.  She directs misplaced anger at him and he rightly gets angry back.  It’s a nice contrast to the lovey-dovey scene that preceded it, and a great opportunity for the actors to show what they can do.

In this case Anna gets two nice speeches – one when she’s at the dinner party and confesses how miserable her life can be, and one when she comes to the bookstore at the end to win William back.  William doesn’t have any speeches, exactly, but he gets most of the funny lines.  William is first introduced dealing with his nutty roommate and then we get the meet-cute moment between William and Anna in the bookstore.  We see how he treats a book thief with kindness so we like him, then we like her when she signs an autograph to the thief with, “you belong in jail.”

True Grit (screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen)
The most recent adaptation of True Grit demonstrates how to create a star role for a secondary character.  The lead is a fourteen-year-old girl.  There aren’t any fourteen-year-old movie stars that could carry a movie like True Grit.  So we get Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges. 

Cogburn is given a great introduction in the scene where Mattie tries to get him out of the outhouse, which is then followed up by his questioning in the trial.  We immediately see what a great, complex character he is.  Cogburn is likeable for his wit and skill.  He’s also given a “save the cat” moment when he rescues Mattie from the whipping LaBoeuf is giving her. 

But he’s got a lot of flaws as well, primarily that he’s a blowhard drunk.  He’s given great emotional range, playing drunk, tough, angry, compassionate, foolish, and proud.  And he has a wonderful arc from self-involved scoundrel to a man who nearly kills himself to get Mattie medical help at the end.  Finally, in addition to abundant great lines, he’s given a nice speech when he “bows out” of the hunt, saying the trail has gone cold.

Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway)
The character of Iron Man is a tough sell to a star like Robert Downey Jr.  It’s a comic book character whose face is covered by a mask a lot of the time.  What elevates the role and the movie is the dimensionality of Tony Stark.  Look at the wonderful entrance he’s given:  a military convoy is drives through the desert.  Cut inside to a glass of scotch.  Tilt up to Tony Stark in an expensive suit.  The soldiers are in awe of him.  He makes jokes – he’s charming.  Then the convoy is attacked!

Tony is likeable because in addition to his charm, he’s one of the most brilliant men in the world.  Of course he also has lots of flaws – he’s selfish and self-involved.  This makes him a wonderfully complex character.  And his decision at the end of Act I to turn his company away from making weapons gets us rooting for him.

Tony Stark gets some great funny lines like, “Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing,” and “It's funny, I though with it being my plane and all that it would just wait for me. I mean, doesn't it kind of defeat the whole purpose of having your own plane if it departs before you arrive?” but he also gets to deliver great serious lines like: “I shouldn't be alive... unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right.” And he gets to make two good speeches, one at the first press conference when he announces his intention to get out of the arms business, and one at the end when he reveals to the press that he is Iron Man.

NEXT UP:  I’ve been re-reading Lagos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing (full review when I’m finished) and it’s got me thinking about how I do character development.  So I decided to interview some successful writers on their character development approach.  First up will be Ross LaManna (Rush Hour).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Writing Parts for Movie Stars

Aspiring screenwriters sometimes feel like there must be a secret password that working screenwriters know to get into the inner circle of the industry. I once felt the same way – and sometimes still do!  Well, there’s no secret password.  But working screenwriters do think about things that aspiring screenwriters often don’t.  These are things that are required to be a useful part of the industry; things that are needed to get movies made and sell them to audiences.  One of these things is writing parts that will appeal to movie stars.

Like it or not, this is still largely a star driven industry, even if the power of stars has waned a little in recent years.  That doesn’t mean every film needs a movie star to get made.  It depends on genre.  Dramas, biopics, buddy pics and romantic comedies almost always need stars.  Big popcorn movies based on underlying material, superhero movies, horror movies, and high concept broad comedies don’t (though often they have them anyway just to be on the safe side).

In other genres it depends.  Usually the higher the concept, the less the need for a star.  It’s about marketing.  If the studio can sell the movie based on the concept alone, then they might make it without a big star.  If not, they want someone they can get on talk shows and that will get the audience’s attention in posters and on billboards. 

So how do you write a part that will attract a star?  Here are a few techniques.

1) Consider the movie star demographic.  If your main character is a sixty-year-old Chinese woman, it’s going to be hard to cast a star.  Of course your premise will dictate your character’s age and gender to a certain degree.  You can’t compromise the premise to try to shoehorn Robert Downey Jr. into the role.  Most characters can and should be written color blind when it comes to race, but not all.  Once you’ve decided what demographic is best for the main character of your story, try to imagine at least six top stars that could play them.  If you can’t, see if you can adjust the demographic to be more star inclusive.  If you absolutely still can’t, see if the second biggest part can be made into a star vehicle.  Sometimes stars don't mind playing the second banana if it's a really juicy role.

2) Make the character someone we can root for.  Stars want to play characters people will love.  How do you make a character we’ll root for?  Give them a noble goal.  Make them an underdog.  Give them a “save the cat” moment early on where we can see they have a good heart.  Give them an identifiable, relatable emotional core – they’re in love, for example.  Give them character traits we admire – a sense of humor, altruism, coolness, strength, loyalty, expertise in an impressive skill.  You don’t have to do all of these, but each of these techniques will make the character more appealing to the audience and thus more appealing to the movie star.

3) Give the character an arc.  This is sort of the counter balance to number 2.  Stars want to play someone with complexity, not a one-dimensional goody two shoes.  The character needs to have a flaw, one that they’ll overcome by the end of the movie.  Just make sure the flaw's not so bad we won't root for them anymore.

4) The character should express a variety of emotions.  Stars are actors.  Actors like to exercise their craft in a variety of ways.  If your character is always angry or always stoic then you’re only giving your star one thing to play (and probably not creating a very realistic character to boot.)  Give the character some emotional range.

5) Give the character an entrance.  Now we’re getting down to the more specific techniques.  You want to give stars scenes that they’re dying to play.  A grand entrance is just such a scene.  Stars have as much ego as any of us – and usually more.   For more on creating an entrance, see my post on character introductions.

6) Give the character a Big Speech.  Another type of scene that draws actors is the chance to deliver a stirring monologue.  You have to be careful, though.  Too much speechifying is a turn off to the actor and the audience.  Nobody likes a blabbermouth.  Give them one big moment to shine, and make it later in the script when you’ve earned it through the build of the story.  And then make that speech a knockout.

7) Give the main character the best lines (and not the exposition).  The star wants to make the funniest jokes and toss out the wittiest bon mots.  And they won’t get excited about delivering the boring exposition.  Give the best dialogue to the main character and let the minor characters do the grunt work.  (This doesn’t mean a minor character can never make a joke, just be sure the star has the bulk of the great lines.)

Writing star parts is one of the skills required of a professional.  Maybe that bothers your artistic sensibilities and that’s fine… as long as you don’t care if anybody buys your scripts or turns them into movies.  And in a lot of ways the things that make a role interesting to a movie star are the same things that will make a character interesting to an audience.  Master the star vehicle and you will have one of those secret passwords that gets you into the inner circle.

Next time I’ll give some examples of how a few movies used these techniques.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Preparation in Opposition

 (SPOILERS: Children of Men, Aliens, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, 30 Rock – 100th Episode)

There’s a technique in screenwriting known as Preparation in Opposition.  This is when you heighten a twist or surprise by setting up the opposite.  If you’re going to deliver bad news to the character, for example, set them up to be happy.  More importantly, set up the audience to believe happy stuff is going to happen.  Then the bad news is a greater shock.  It sounds simple, but in practice it’s very easy to miss opportunities to do this.

One version of this technique has become cliché – if you’re watching an action movie and a cop announces he’s near retirement and shows you a picture of his adoring family and/or the boat he’s just bought, you can be sure he’s about to die.  Recently I saw a TV show (30 Rock – 100th Episode: written by Jack Burditt & Robert Carlock & Tina Fey) and a movie (Black Dynamite: story by Michael Jai White & Byron Minns, screenplay by Michael Jai White & Byron Minns & Scott Sanders) that both parodied this cliché. 

In the 30 Rock version, a maintenance worker on his last day continually shows pictures of his family as he tries to fix a gas leak.  The joke is nothing ever happens to him.  Ironically, because we’re so familiar with this cliché, the show created preparation in opposition by getting us to expect his imminent demise!

Of course unless you’re doing parody, you’ll want to avoid such an obvious manipulation. Here are some examples where the technique was used effectively:

In Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby), we see Theo and Julian blowing a ping-pong ball back and forth in a car while the other passengers laugh.  And then the car is attacked by a gang and Julian is killed.  It’s much more impactful than if the group in the car were discussing the danger of the mission immediately before being attacked.

At the end of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron), Ripley congratulates Bishop on a job well done – an important emotional moment since she hadn’t trusted him through most of the movie.  And then we see acid dripping and BLAM – the mama alien’s tail pierces Bishop’s chest.  This is actually another somewhat cliché version of the technique from horror movies – just when we think the killer is dead, they rise one last time.  When properly planted as in Aliens it can still work quite well.

The opposite works too – would E.T.’s resurrection in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) be nearly as joyful if we hadn’t gone through the whole traumatic mourning scene first?

Yet too often in weak screenplays we see the surprises and twists coming a mile away.  It’s understandable – for a surprise to be believable, after all, the elements need to be planted.  But then it’s your job to convince the audience that something else is going to happen.  The twist that the queen is still alive in Aliens works because we believe the scene is about something else entirely.

Since this is easy to miss in the first draft, I make it a focus of one of my rewrite passes.  I identify the moments where I want the audience to be really surprised, then I revise the scene to set up the expectation of the opposite.  But I make sure that I’ve properly planted any information needed to make the twist believable.  And then I disguise the plants by drawing attention away from them.

Let me illustrate this last point.  In Aliens, the queen getting on the drop ship is planted when the drop ship is blown across a pile of debris on the landing platform.  That gives her the opportunity to hide in the wheel well, even though we don’t realize that’s what’s happening at the time.  In E.T., it’s well established that we don’t understand E.T.’s physiology or abilities so we can believe that the scientists were wrong about his death.  In Children of Men, we’ve seen that the world of the movie contains dangerous gangs… and later we learn this attack was not as random as it appeared.

In a way, the Act Two Turning Point is the ultimate example of Preparation in Opposition.  Your goal at this point is to set the audience up to believe that the only possible outcome is the opposite of what the ultimate resolution will be.  That’s how you create tension in Act Three.  And then you deliver the unexpected in a believable fashion.

Remember the magician’s main technique: misdirection.  Lead your audience one way and then surprise them!  They’ll love it.