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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Give Your Characters Some Credit

We talk a lot about writing good characters on the Rouge Wave and there’s a reason for that – I know, this is repetitive, anyone want to fight me over it? – in a sense, all movies are character-driven. Yes, the characters in THE TRANSFORMERS do not have the depth and complexity of the characters in EVENING – but Wavers, take it from me, strive for depth and complexity because if you find yourself being paid oodles of money down the line to write a big action picture – it will still come in handy. But if you just have no idea how to write good characters, well, your “career” will be brief – if it ever gets started at all. And the odds aren’t good if you can’t write believable characters.

Nobody said it is easy. In fact, it is about the most elusive and difficult part of screenwriting. But I find that some writers underwrite characters they view as so ancillary as to not warrant the time and trouble. So we wind up with waitresses who speak like Stepford Wives, or coaches who bark orders relentlessly or "hot babes" who seem to literally have no other concerns, obligations or interests outside of the kegger they have been dropped into as filler for the writer. Give your characters a little credit, guys. They must have the dimension, quirks, common sense (or lack of it) that real humans do.

Every line of every page of your script is an opportunity. Don’t waste a character, don’t waste an action line, don’t waste a single square-inch of your script.

Remember, characters are not replicants of human beings, they really should be written as if you are recording the best, more emotional, entertaining moments of a real human being. After all, when your movie is made, real human beings will inhabit these roles. And if this human being is a truly good actor, what was a character on your page is going to be a living breathing human being onscreen. One indistinguishable from a real person for audience members. Did anybody for one second see Anthony Hopkins when they watched Hannibal Lecter do his thing? No. You were focused on Lecter. As if he truly exists.

On the flip side, sometimes an actor's celebrity is so huge that when you see Brad Pitt in a role, you perceive Brad Pitt playing such-and-such character. His celebrity always comes between you and his character. Meryl Streep is an actress famous for becoming so enmeshed and immersed in her characters that you forget it's Meryl Streep that you are watching. In a sense, she disappears. And the character takes over.

Going to the movies is a suspense of disbelief; audiences make an agreement with you when they buy the ticket, that they are entering a fantasy zone in which x,y and z things will happen. And it is a trip so real that they will laugh aloud, sniffle and cry and go home quoting great lines. So keep up your end of the bargain and don't skimp on making your ancillary characters three-dimensional every bit as much as you do your main characters.

So often novice screenwriters get really excited about the potential money they can earn if they sell a script. We've talked at length on the Rouge Wave of the probability of that and how you should be driven by the love of it more than anything else since the odds are frankly monstrous. But for the sake of argument, yes, successful screenwriters can get paid very well. But they work for it. Keep up your end of the bargain. Don't rush through your script and gloss over anything. Not even that "hot babe" in the party scene.

So open your script and read it aloud to yourself or a captive audience. Act the script out yourself. Would a person really say the line you just read aloud? For real? Wouldn’t a real person be more scared? Or wouldn’t a real person question what just happened? Give your character some credit. They are not pretending to exist and pretending to be in this situation – for them this is a real world and these things are really happening. It sounds kind of creepy, as if you have to be a little crazy to write good characters. Now is a good time to get okay with that.

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