Tag Archives: craft

Creating Characters by Alan Flanagan

As part of the Script Angel Writer’s Toolbox series, writer and script editor Alan Flanagan looks at the tricky task of building your characters.

Have you ever tried to be the most interesting person at a cocktail party? To look like the smartest person in your class? To make someone fall in love with you?

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It’s not fun, and yet as a writer you’re left with the Herculean task of making an audience care deeply about your characters, not just in ninety minutes but usually in under twenty — and ideally under ten.

So how do you build a human being without raiding your local graveyard?

Facts, Facts, Facts

When building any character, remember the iceberg rule. You need to know about ten times as much about your character as your audience will ever see.

Build a character profile, including their family history — parents and siblings definitely, grandparents can be helpful — and place of birth, their education, professional history, taste in lovers, taste in friends, taste in food. There are no right or wrong answers here, but you will find yourself forming a concrete version of this person from which it will be impossible to deviate when you sit down to write your script.

Remember, a character who feels specific is “universal”, but a character who feels non-specific is just “generic”.

Point Of View

Secondary to facts, an interesting exercise for a character profile can be to question your character on various facets of their lives. This isn’t just about their biggest fear or their proudest achievement, but their personal opinion on anything from Afghanistan to Miley Cyrus. Everyone has an opinion on big issues, even if (tellingly) that opinion is no opinion at all.

Character & Plot

Often the main reason we get into this business is because of our desire to spin a good yarn. But by building a concrete character you will time and again see opportunities for the facts of your characters life to intersect beautifully with your story.

For example, consider a character’s profession. Think of how Memento‘s Leonard used his background as an insurance investigator to anchor his sense of self. Or how American Beauty‘s Carolyn Burnham was so perfectly encapsulated by her zealous cleaning of a house. Profession can also helpfully delineate characters, as the multifarious characters in Orphan Black (all played by the same actress) find differences in being a cop, or a drug dealer, or a researcher.

And that’s just profession, which is one tiny detail in your list of facts. Think of what else a character profile can offer you.

The Stereotype Trap

“Write what you know”, right? While every writer draws on their own experience — whether they intend to or not — it’s important to bear in mind what that phrase means.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, it’s clear that the characters writers are bringing to the screen are predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly straight, predominately… predominant. Do you want to see a character you’ve seen a million times, or one whose story you’ve never seen before?

It also says something about how we see the “write what you know” dynamic. “What you know” isn’t about your gender, sexuality, race — it’s about humanity, and that doesn’t see such simple boundaries.

Next time you’re working on a script, consider how a character would work if you flipped their gender, changed their ethnicity, gave them a disability. It won’t change their character outright, nor should it, but it may throw up unusual character moments and interesting plot points you hadn’t considered.

Bringing Your Character To Life

Once you’ve nailed down everything about your character, the obvious question is how to get them down on paper. Here a couple of key elements come into play:

First Moment: On the page a reader is usually being bombarded by characters and information, so it’s vital that the first sight we get of a character is a fair approximation of who they are. Do they come crashing through a window? Tumbling out of their neighbour’s wife’s bed? Cowering from a knock at the door? Far too many characters enter a script doing nothing, or doing something that is either bland or a poor indication of who they are.

Look: This is packaged with the above, but consider how your character looks. Avoid commenting on their attractiveness, because it tells us nothing — what is a “pretty” girl? Instead, rely on unusual adjectives — “sly”, “clipped”, “bullish” — and focus on what part of a person’s look really tells us about them. Are their shoes scuffed? Is their hair pulled back painfully? Chewed nails? Smeared lipstick? Red eyes? Gleaming pocket watch? Be specific but be concise.

Dialogue: Writing good dialogue is a difficult, some might say impossible, skill to learn. It relies on a combination of brevity, levity, plot necessities and a true voice that comes from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

What you can decide straight off is the general style of a character’s voice. Think of their background, their education, their attitude to life. Are they all long words and dripping bon mots? Or are they constantly dropping their g’s and speaking in metaphors? Are they clipped, one-word robots or loquacious, excited know-it-alls?

Relationships: Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to define your character early and well, put them in a situation with someone they are deeply connected to. It could be by hatred, by love, by family, by law, but deep relationships breed deep reactions — showing who your character really is.

The Wants & Needs: In drama, as in life, people want things. And in drama as in life, this often doesn’t correspond with what they really need.

When we introduce a character, we not only introduce their personality, but we implicitly introduce their flaws, and what they really want and need in their lives. In any scene, a character should be aiming to achieve something – and a scene without goals and change is a dead fish.

But on a wider scale, any story should look to exploit its character’s flaws and needs. This could be done traditionally but subversively, as in Frozen where the hidden need is a sisterly connection. Or a flaw could be exploited to teach a lesson, as in Requiem For A Dream‘s series of interlocking tragedies. Or a character’s flaws could be cured, but then undermined, as in Chinatown‘s reforming of its protagonist, only to have him lose everything in the end.

Always remember that audiences aren’t looking for someone to like, they’re looking for someone to love. And we only love people we feel we know, people who are beautiful and damaged and as flawed as we are. Anything less will ring hollow.

Bio: Alan Flanagan is a writer and script editor who works for Big Finish Productions on the series ‘Dark Shadows’, as well as script editing for Canadian festival WildSound and being artistic director of theatre company Refractive Lens. Twitter: @parallelevision

Alan is currently performing his one-man show Dupont & Davenport at the Edinburgh Fringe, which tackles what happens when we can’t tell the difference between grief and love, and how we let someone go when technology makes it almost impossible. It runs until Friday 8th August, 1.25pm, at George Next Door, 9-11 George IV Bridge.

Bold Reimagining or Pale Imitation?

Having read thousands of scripts and watched hundreds of films and television dramas I’ve found that classic stories appear over and over again. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re always hearing that audiences and producers want films and screenplays that are ‘the same but different’. So how do you deliver on the expectations of your genre, produce something recognisable and familiar enough to engage an audience and yet make your script feel fresh and original?

For me it comes down to your own personal take on any given story and being true to your view of the world. Lucy Hay recently wrote an interesting piece on Vanilla Screenplays which really rang true for me. You could give the same basic story (mythic hero or boy meets girl) to Quentin Tarantino, Nora Ephron, Joss Whedon and Diablo Cody and get back four very different screenplays. That’s not just down to differences in genre but in their world-view and strong sense of writing style.

The other key to making sure your screenplay isn’t just a pale imitation is to know what’s in the market now and what has gone before. If you’re going to pitch a television drama about a magician’s apprentice at least try to make it substantially different from ‘Merlin’. If you’ve got an idea for a film about a prostitute falling in love with a rich guy, make sure it isn’t just a pale imitation of ‘Pretty Woman’.  Trying to make your idea feel different from what’s already out there is sometimes easier said than done and the first solution you come up with may not be the best. John Cleese gave a talk about Creativity and the advice that stuck with me the most was to give yourself as much thinking or pondering time as possible. Keep coming back to the problem and thinking of new solutions.

If you can’t find a ‘take’ on your story that feels distinctive and original, then maybe it’s not the right story for you. Don’t bin it, just put it away in that handy bottom drawer and maybe in the future you’ll find a very personal take on the idea that you and only you could write. In the meantime, be bold and imaginative not just in your concepts and ideas but in how you execute them.

 

Screenwriting Books

An updated list following some great suggestions from screenwriters of books that they’ve found particularly useful.

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J Michael Straczynski

Making A Good Script Great by Linda Seger

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter

Inside Story by Dara Marks

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

The Tools of Screenwriting by Howard & Mabley

Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hague

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

The Soul of Screenwriting by Keith Cunningham

On Filmmaking by Alexander Mackendrick (about directing but with great sections on screenwriting)

Alternative Scriptwriting by Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (an insight into the creative processes and pressures of showrunning)

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker (UK focused)

Writing Television Drama by Nicholas Gibbs (UK focused)

Happy reading!

Practise Makes Perfect

Watching the extraordinary achievements of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes this summer made me appreciate more than ever that if you want to be successful at something, you’ve got to knuckle down and practise.

For screenwriters of course that means practising your writing by simply writing – LOTS! But it also means studying your craft; analysing successful screenplays, reading books on screenwriting or attending seminars and talks by others who’ve analysed thousands of movies and screenplays. It means identifying areas of your craft that you’re not as strong on (story structure or character or dialogue) and finding techniques to help you get better at those elements.

But great writing alone rarely enables you to succeed and there are other aspects to being a successful writer that you’ll need to master. Perhaps you’re lousy at networking or pitching. If you hate pitching (and I know a LOT of writers who do) then practising is vital if you’re to get good at it – at the very least you want to be comfortable enough doing it that you don’t turn into a blubbering wreck when an Executive asks you about your new movie idea.  And who knows, you might discover you’ve got a real knack for it and find yourself desperate to go to a huge pitch festival and get on that stage to pitch with the best of them.

In an industry built so heavily on personal recommendation, networking is another aspect of the job that lots of writers dread. As with pitching, it requires practice so my advice is to get out there and get doing it!

The forthcoming London Screenwriters’ Festival is a great place to learn tips on your craft, practise your pitching and your networking.  I’ll be speaking there and, of course, networking too so come and say hello.  Don’t forget that if you use Discount Code ‘SCRIPTANGEL2012’ you can save £22 off the ticket price.  Let me know if you’re going and I hope to see you there.

Be honest with yourself, identify those areas that you’re really not so great at, and put the work in to get better at them. With hard graft in the right areas you’ve got a great chance of making it as a successful screenwriter.  Good luck!

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