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Monday, April 27, 2009

So Much Fear, So Little Time

So what are you worried about right now? Swine flu? Money? Relationships or lack of them? Your kids? Terrorism, global warming, your health, closing factories, the government? I find the world is growing more and more alarming - and alarmist. Every day I read the headlines and I think oh man, am I getting old or is stuff accelerating in negative ways? Am I shining a rose colored light on a few years back when I was younger or is stuff happening in our world that is rising in intensity? So much to fear, so little time.

So I work hard to feel better. Think globally act locally. Exercise. Meditation. Laughter. Focusing on the positive wherever it can be found. Unplugging from the media (or the weapon of mass distraction as a certain spiritual leader I admire would say). What do you do to try and feel better when there are so many things to worry and feel anxious about? Don't tell me you have no underground rivers of things you worry about. We all do.

And so do three-dimensional, unforgettable characters. Really great characters act and speak like real people, right? That's what makes them compelling. So what world do they live in beyond the construct of conflict you have engineered? Have you thought about the balance in your main character's checking account? Or how your main character feels about the issues in the media? You may not focus on some of the very real, real world issues happening within the world of your script; WHEN HARRY MET SALLY didn't focus on what was happening in the White House at that time - and it shouldn't have. Movies are escapist fare. But even if your script doesn't focus on global or personal realities, when writing a great character, those life realities are still happening beneath the surface. They have to be.

Every character has a family of origin. A past. A few pounds they'd like to lose. A bad habit they'd like to break. A lonely weekend. Moments of doubt. A spiritual belief system - or not. A world view and a world experience. They came from somewhere, they grew up and they lived in a world. So how has that impacted them over time? How has it impacted you?

As Tony Gilroy so truthfully wrote in MICHAEL CLAYTON - people are incomprehensible. So writing a character who feels real is a pretty tall order. Some writers, such as like Proust or Tolstoy, accomplish this with pointillist details. Others, like like TC Boyle or Denis Johnson, use a more graffiti-like way of writing, with broad strokes and bright colors that somehow coalesce into a realness on the page. In screenwriting, we can combine both tiny details and broad strokes to achieve an impact. But mostly, we have to use actions to define our characters. Which is both easier and much more difficult. We don't have the luxury of getting inside our characters' heads to tell a long backstory or reflect upon madelines. We have to be quick and dirty, which I personally think is the funnest thing about screenwriting. It's like puzzle solving - how can I show you that this is a lonely person? How can I show you that this is an optimistic person? A joker, a cynic or a worrier? How can I convey that quickly and effectively so that you the reader (or viewer) can plug into that person and get who they are?

I know what NOT to do and that is to write a character who is two-dimensional. Which is a charge often found in coverage reports. Two-dimensional writing is a character who is described physically and only concerned with what is happening right now - but who does not have foibles, traits, eccentricities or specificity as a human being. Even if your character is a type, it has to be a type that we can connect to. Oh yeah, I've met that guy before.

So back to today's topic - think about it - what is on your main character's mind that has nothing to do with the story at hand? Think about what you are worried about or anxious about and how you cope with that and ask yourself what your main character feels about the news of the day. Does your main character live in anxiety or blow it off? Do they drink or smoke it away? How evolved is your main character on a personal level? How do they deal with conflict and personal managment? Do they get lonely in a crowd? Do they have a savings account? Are they worried about that strange new mole? Give your character the same details that we all have.

In a SCRUBS episode a million years ago, Zach Braff coped by being in a bubble bath, surrounded by candles and singing Toto's Africa at the top of his lungs. It was hilarious, it was specific and it was real.

Update: You may be wondering about the Robotard 8000. They unfortunately had a last minute change of plans and my interview with them is on ice for the moment.

Now get back to work.

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Trina0623 said...

This is what I'm working on right now. I realized that the characters in my last script are two dimensional because I didn't get to know them well enough. It's hard to make them complex and three dimensional when you don't really know them. It's like writing about strangers.

So now I'm going to try writing character sketches for them all before rewriting. I think it will help to know how their back stories, attitudes, foibles, flaws, dreams, desires, and failings will inform what they do and say and how they do it.

Anonymous said...

I've found that one really good way to show a character's concern and eccentricity is to put them in a scene where they get stuck on one of the first ideas, and then as the conversation moves on, out of the blue they bring up a point that was raised ages ago, as if their mind has been dwelling on this while the rest of the characters have been getting on with the storyline. So, for instance, the scene might start with a discussion between three characters about the benefits of eating kangaroo meat, it's full of iron, tasty, tender, and cheaper than beef etc, then the conversation might go on between two of the characters talking about mad cow disease, and then swine flu. Meanwhile the other character becomes silent, and then after thinking for a bit, he will just say out of the blue: "But you can't eat kangaroo, can you? Those are those animals that Australians ride to work, aren't they?"

This is a good way of getting a little bit of comedy in, and the more characters that do this in a scene, the funnier it can be. If you were clever, you could have five characters all having a conversation with themselves when they were supposed to be discussing something serious between them.

OK, so this might be a very specific example, but I think that it is a good idea to think about preoccupations. What is stopping the character from joining in the conversation? When do they feel they should pipe up?