The characters in a modern dramatic film must be what I call three-dimensional or true to life. All human beings are far more than what they appear to be because to be human is to hold one’s true self within. And those characteristics can only be known through the person’s actions, words, and overall attitudes. It is the exteriors brought on by the interiors that help us to know a person. And what is a person? Psychologists tell us that a person is made up of ten percent genetics and ninety percent experiences. How a person has been affected by experiences in the past will be seen through the responses to current events as demonstrated through words and deeds. But that connection is not always evident.
In real life, we often see people act a particular way to an incident that may puzzle us or even confuse us. We find ourselves wondering such questions as “why did they do that?” or “what’s going on with her?” We’re not sure why people act and say the things they do, but we can assume that it has something to do with their past experiences. Even if we should ask a good friend these questions, they will answer by telling what they want you to believe are the answers without actually telling you what’s really going on.
This illustrates that element of mystery that exists about “other people” that we must bring to the big screen if we want it to be a “slice of life,” as Aristotle indicated in his writing over 2500 years ago. He wrote that if your story is to be believable, it has to seem as if it would happen in real life. And part of real life is the certainty that we can never know what’s going on in another person’s head. So, the screenwriter will know the character’s background intimately because she wrote it. But, she will choose to only allude to that past like real people do rather than explain exactly what has happened. Thus, each major character should have the element of mystery that all of us possess that makes us who we are.
These elements or responses are often termed “personality.” Some people believe these personality traits to be inherent or inherited through the DNA of their parents and grand-parents. Although that may be true to a small extent, a person learns to be who they are over time by experiencing life and by learning how to respond to certain things from other people. It is these influences that make us who we are.
Thus, it becomes imperative for the screenwriter to create characters with a diverse and often checkered past in order to have a character who can exist in the present with an eye to the future. There are any numbers of ways to go about creating these types of characters.
One way is to look at a character from a three-dimensional point of view. Every person has a basic philosophy of life that influences and governs the attitudes toward life in general. Every person makes decisions that turn into actions that other people can see and judge. Then human beings are emotional creatures allowing for emotional responses to things that happen around them.
The writer can give a character some basic philosophical beliefs such as a basic world view, personal values, general beliefs, and norms for living in the world. That basic philosophy of life is what usually governs a person’s whole being: thoughts, emotions, and actions. Understanding how this works allows the writer to delve deeply into a character’s past as well as giving the character a pre-disposition toward other characters, the situation, the conflict, the antagonist, and his or her own life existence within the story.
The following is a basic guide to writing a character biography. But before going to the guide, let me stress that it is NOT important to try to write out a biography in full detail. But, what does help is to focus on a series of chronological events that caused certain types of reactions that have made the character who/what he is today. For example, Indiana Jones states in the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark that he is afraid of snakes. That piece of information prepares the audience for the time when he falls into a pit full of snakes.
Here are some basic ideas to think about while you are creating your characters. These suggestions, or guidelines, can also be used to test your characters after they have been created on the pages of your script. They are not intended as absolutes or necessities, but are to be used as suggestions to aid the writer in that constant struggle to pull from his or her mind everything possible to create a character that has never existed with the proviso that this character should appear to an audience as an actual living and breathing person in the world of the now.
Are your characters, especially your main characters, acceptable to the pre-conceived ideas about what makes a good fiction hero? Yet, have you used some ingenious creativity that makes your characters uniquely yours? Remember that despite the fear of caricatures (which I shall address in a later blog), editors, producers, publishers love stereotypes mostly because of the comfort factor. But they also love creatively manipulated stereotypes. So, create characters that fit into one of the pre-conceived concepts from the current crop of popular movies in the theaters. Then use your creative juices to make your character uniquely your creation that gives that "person" a flair that the other characters like him just don’t have. And that is one of the secrets to getting your novel published or script produced in Hollywood.
Are your characters acceptable to the target audience you are writing for? Remember that if the people watching the movie don’t like your character, they will rate your movie as “Yuck!” rather than “Wow!” So, give your audience what they think they want but add creativity that makes them different.
Do your main characters move the story along? In reality, this is the defining quality of a main character. If what they do and say does not affect the story, then you have misidentified who the story is about.
A major element in writing a great character for your story can best be described in a question: Why should the audience care about your character? This addresses the issue of the audience feeling empathy toward and identifying with your hero. If the audience fails to care about your main character, they will put your book down or won’t stay for the end of the movie.
There are a number of ways that you can create in your character a sense of intrigue and identification with your hero. First, make sure that you introduce your hero early in the story so that the audience knows immediately who the story is about. Note that in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first person the audience is introduced to is Indiana Jones who is in a rather difficult situation in which he immediately screws up and runs away to save his own skin. That opening may not sound like an exciting beginning, but it worked wonderfully as the audience sees that this guy is not a super hero: he’s just a guy like me. Within ten minutes of the opening credits, the audience is already in the screenwriter's pocket and identifying with his hero.
Oddly though, this opening sequence used several more techniques for creating identification by allowing the audience to empathize with the hero. The script placed Jones in serious jeopardy. His arch enemy, a man named Belloch, had captured Jones, taken the prize he had recovered from a dangerous cave, and threatened him with death by poison darts. Only Jones’ unique escape (he just ran like hell) got him out of danger and into the hands of the pilot who had brought him to the jungle area where the scene was taking place. So, the closing shot of the opening scene is Jones in an airplane flying off into the horizon.
Another technique to use to aid the audience into identifying with the main character is by allowing the hero to be self-giving and/or self-sacrificing when the circumstance arises. Jones and his “love-interest,” Marion Ravensbrook, are on a ship sailing for the U.S. when it is intercepted by a German U-boat. During the Nazi search of the ship, Marion is captured and placed on board the submarine then taken away. As the Germans left the boat, Jones emerged from his hiding place only to discover that Marion had been captured. So he did the only thing he could do: he jumps overboard and attaches himself to the submarine while trying to figure out just how he could possibly save the one he cares about. That scene brings a realization to the audience that here’s a man willing to give his life to try and rescue the woman he loves.
Among the many tips and tricks a screenwriter can use to build credibility and empathy with the main character of a script is to give that person the ability to do what it is that he needs to do. This could be as simple as showing the character as being an expert shot then later having him hit an impossible target perfectly. Had the audience not been shown the earlier scene of the hero firing a rifle and hitting the center of a target, then they would simply have dismissed the shot as silly manipulation..
So, empowerment begins with the character having whatever ability or skill that will be necessary later on in the story when the hero is required to use every bit of ingenuity and expertise available to face an almost impossible task. But, this is only a surface level empowerment. The deeper power a hero should have is in self-discipline on a level that would lead to a final empowerment that gives the hero the ability to run toward the danger rather than away from it. Plus, the hero should also have some ability to control or influence other people to aid in the accomplishment of a goal that ultimately ends the conflict of the story. Audiences can identify with someone who has the confidence needed to accomplish the impossible by getting others to go with him.
This leads to the third part of empowerment: power over one’s circumstances. Most people can fully understand the problem of facing insurmountable circumstances in life. Let your hero face an impossible situation and overcome that with the knowledge he or she has gained during the course of the story. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Jones spends the entire movie finding and holding onto a notebook kept by his father (played by Sean Connery). At the end of the story, his father is shot by the villain and Jones has to go through a dangerous cave in order to procure the “cup of Christ” filled with “holy water” that would heal his dad. This is an impossible situation which Jones has to be empowered to overcome. And that power comes from the writings in that notebook.
Are your characters so interesting and real that they make the story really worth sitting through for the entire length of the film? No matter how wonderful your story might be, if the main characters are dull and uninteresting, your audience will stop reading or quit watching. So you need to look at them seriously and ask yourself the following questions: Do your characters move the story along? Are they worthy enough for your story and strong enough to make your story work? Will the audience actually “see” the worthiness and trust that you, the writer, care enough about these people that they will be happy they have spent this time with the characters you have created?
Those people around us who are deemed worthy are those people we trust and admire. Are your characters such that the reader or viewer will be willing to take the time to follow the exploits through to the end? And I guess here I must ask you, the writer, "Do you care about these characters? --enough to spend weeks, months or even years with them? When I completed my book The Reluctant General, I was a little disappointed because I had so much fun writing about Barak and Deborah, that I wanted their story to go on and on. I simply had to stop and get the book out for others to share in the story of these people I cared about. One reviewer mentioned that she was "inspired" by the description of a woman in the ancient Middle East who was willing to go against tradition and stand at the head of an army.
How does your main character (or characters) change? In the end, does your main character come to a new realization about the situation or even life? Have their attitudes changed about the goals or the other main characters as a result of the quest the hero took on at the beginning of the story? Does the audience see the changes taking place during the movement of the story? Is the end of your story the beginning of the hero’s new life ahead?
Showing this transformation becomes a major obstacle for most writers early in their writing career. But, there are methods that can be used to show and help the audience to understand and believe the gradual change that takes place over a period of time. Essentially, it is conflict that causes change in humans. Even in real life, when a person is in a conflict situation as simple as a disagreement over a business deal or as complicated as a divorce that includes small children and a large estate, a person is radically changed in many different ways as a result.
So what happens? First of all, the people constantly talk about what happened to them. They tell their neighbors, their intimates, their family, their business colleagues, and anyone who will listen. And then they do things. A divorcee might become depressed and spend all her time at home or become completely engrossed in her work so much so that she never leaves the office except to change clothes and bathe. Or a person whose business has experienced bankruptcy may look at the tragedy and horror as a wonderful opportunity to start something entirely new or to start a job that is totally different from what they had been doing. People respond to conflict by talking and by doing.
But, the most important thing that can happen to a “hero” in a story is that in and through the conflict of the story, he becomes smarter than he was about whatever the conflict dealt with. As the main character deals with events and problems, he gains knowledge that helps in future situations. The hero becomes more of an expert in the things he is facing than anyone else in the story.
A simplified example might help here. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones struggles with every possible thing that could go wrong in his search to find the ancient Ark of the Covenant that was in the possession of Jewish people in ancient biblical times. He makes a lot of mistakes and even bungles several attempts at snagging the Ark. In the end when he and Marion are tied to the post while the Nazi’s attempt to open the top of the Ark he realizes what he and she must do to survive then tells her to keep her eyes closed no matter what happens. That knowledge saved their lives.
Most writes write stories about men and women facing amazing situations that seem almost impossible to overcome. These film, novel, or short-story excursions into fantasy require believable characters who act in plausible ways within the given circumstances of the fictional world created for the reader or viewer. The actions, reactions, responses, and spoken words used throughout must be acceptable to the audience as those that would normally occur within the realm of human activity.
That acceptability comes through careful planning on the part of the writer thus requiring the development of characters each with a history: that is the characters must be as real to the writer as her own family, friends, acquaintances, etc. In other words, the writer must create characters with a life in progress—characters with a past.
During the next several postings, I will offer some suggestions to help you as a writer to hopefully create believable people to inhabit your stories.
One of the most effective ways of creating a believable fictional character is to create that character from their birth highlighting special events that have shaped their life up to the minute just before the story you will be telling starts. A few questions that will help you get started would be the following: Did the protagonist ever meet the antagonist? What was it between them that led the antagonist to be so antagonistic toward the protagonist? What about other people in the story? How, where, why did the protagonist meet and get to know any of them? Do they meet for the first time in the story?
An excellent example of how this works can be found in the motion picture Raiders of the Lost Ark wherein the protagonist (Indiana Jones) and the antagonist (Belloch) have a rocky past wherein they have had conflicts over ownership of various archeological sites. Also, Jones had a past with the love interest (Marion Ravensbrook). They fell in love when she was barely out of her teenage years. When they meet again, she greets him with a hard right to the jaw.
Characters who mention past experiences, past loves, past hurts, past joys, past relationships, as well as parents, siblings, relatives, and friends are people with whom your audience can identify. They will seem “real” to them during the telling of the story. The way you can do this is literally writing that character’s biography. This does not have to be a blow-by-blow recounting the person’s whole life. All you need to do is create major events such as first auto accident at age seventeen, or an encounter with a bully at age nine, or a serious injury caused by a missed turn on a bicycle or skate board.
There is a serious danger in writing fictional characters; and that is the tendency to create character “types” rather than characters that walk, talk, act, and exist the way real people do. This mistake is often referred to as writing “stereotypes.” These types of characters tend to be cartoonish in nature. They do or say things because they must. But, since characters in a movie bring to the screen experiences and emotions purporting to be from real life, they must originate from an experience in the character’s background and the responses to the events in the script. In other words, the emotions portrayed by the characters in your script must be “true” to real life.
An additional danger is that Hollywood tends to love stereotypes because of the comfort factor. Stereotypes fit into pre-conceived concepts from the movies that have been popular. It appears to me that those screenwriters who truly “make it” in Hollywood have discovered the delicate balance of writing characters that are just like real people yet appear to be like the Uber-Characters of the strong movies of the past such as Indiana Jones, or Moses (The Ten Commandments), or even Elliot (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial). These characters fit the definition of an acceptable Hollywood Hero with an extraordinary creativity behind their creation in the mind of the writers and the techniques of the actors that in turn result in memorable “people” in the minds of the audience members.
Every writer has a different place to start writing a particular piece. Some start with a specific character: someone who interests them in some way. Then the screenwriter builds a story around that character, such as the character in the film Gladiator. Other writers imagine an almost impossible event, such as a volcano forming in the center of Los Angeles (Volcano) or a comet headed directly for the earth (Armageddon). Still others may see an event that took place in real life then develop the story around where that event or crime took place, such as in the movie A River Runs through It.
However, I hate to disappoint you, but every new story begins the same way: a blank sheet of paper. Of course, that’s the basic tyranny of the writer. Every day, the scribe sits before a blank sheet of paper or perhaps a blank screen on his computer and starts to place words on that blank slate. And those words eventually lead to either a great story or something that needs to be thrown away. So, what is my advice? Make friends with the blank page and learn to love the potential that lies before you.
There are several elements that are necessary to begin to tell a story. The first is the group of characters that populate your story. Every story involves at least one character. Two or three others, either present or implied, may be added. But every story must have one main character (your “hero”) around whom the story revolves. Usually there is a villain, or the person who tries to stop the hero from accomplishing what he must. However, the villain may not be another person per se but rather can be anything that prevents the hero from accomplishing her goal. And the villain might very well be the hero herself. And as one might suspect, another main character often found in stories is a love interest, or someone for whom the hero finds it necessary or worthwhile to fight for. This other character is important enough to the hero that he may be willing to sacrifice his own life for her. This might be a person, an animal, or an ideal of some kind. But, in the story it is still a character in the sense that he (she or it) is the object of the hero’s affection.
Another element a writer may use is the various incidents that happen during the story. Many writers utilize 3x5 or 4x6 note cards to keep track of these incidents while planning the story. Personally, I use an I-Pad to write. I often utilize an app called "Index Card" (produced by DenVog, LLC). That program allows me to use the flexibility of a set of 4x6 note cards on which I place a brief description of the action that will take place in that chapter or scene.
The app also provides a place for extensive notes concerning the actions and characters involved. And I can also write the entire scene or chapter on a space connected to the card. Then when I'm done, I simply export what I've done to RTF format and I'm ready to import into either Pages or Word or Final Draft.
Whatever you use is not important. That you have a series of events or obstacles for your hero to overcome during the course of the story is important. A secret to Hollywood writing is that these incidents should get harder as the story goes along then climax with what appears to be an impossible situation that your hero must overcome. After this incident, your story should then come to an end. And just what happens during that ending is also important to your story. Oh, and the same basic format, or structure, is followed when writing any fictional story such as in a novel or short story or whatever.
Now, I challenge you to read any classic novel or even a modern screenplay. In them you will find one person struggling against all odds to prevent some catastrophic result from occurring that usually involves someone very special to the main character. And this rule runs true whether you are writing a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, an adventure, or any other genre. Even if you are writing children's fantasy utilizing animals as the characters, the rule still holds true. Audiences are held in their seats watching characters fight for their own lives and find it impossible to move when they are fighting for the life of someone they love. Oh, by the way, remember that a story can be about a woman struggling against all odds to achieve her goals.
With that said, let’s now turn to the reason why you are writing: to tell a story! Let me begin by discouraging you from sitting down to write the next blockbuster because the chances of that manuscript ever being published in book form or produced for the movies, no matter how good it may be is between none and none whatsoever.
When you think of a novel, the explosion of self-publishing has flooded the market with novels that okay, not good, bad, and really awful. The cost of publishing and marketing has risen so much over the years since 2000, that many publishers no longer even look at new writer's material. Instead, many are now perusing the self-published market to see what sells and then approaching those authors.
When it comes to writing a movie script, a Hollywood producer (the person with the money to make the film) will only look at scripts that he/she has had a hand in developing or from a highly successful screenwriter that is recognized as a money-maker or from an A-list actor who has come up with a great idea for a story. A lone screenwriter that no one in Hollywood has ever heard of has a one-in-a-million (or more) shot at writing a blockbuster that will be produced for thirty or forty million dollars.
Yet, with that said, please don't let me be the reason you choose not to write. If you must write, then write. If the product is good enough to be published, then an agent or editor will recognize the worthiness of the work and someone will publish that story. The chances of getting published and making a living at writing is greater than winning the lottery. So, write! Write often! Make time to write. Even if you write a blog on a website, at least write something and work toward making your writing easy to read, easy to understand, and fascinating enough to keep people to the end--which is what I'm hoping has happened here.
Face the blank page and then conquer it! You can do it if you set your mind, talent and skills to accomplishing it. Good luck!
It is important to do thorough preparation and research before you begin writing on any subject. Of course, you may already be an expert in certain fields, but if you are writing a story that involves issues or subjects in which you are unfamiliar or have only cursory understanding, then you'll need to spend some time researching the topic.
When it comes to "doing" research, many young people go immediately to the internet assuming that they'll find the kind of information that will help them. However, there is a rule about the internet that is important to remember: anyone can put anything on the internet at anytime and make it sound authoritative. Oh, and Wikipedia may not be the authority either. I have found over my long career that the information I find in the library will be far more authoritative than that on the world wide web.
I'm not saying that you cannot find good stuff on the internet. If you have access to a college library or a local, well-funded library, you should be able to access a great deal of information that is not readily available through normal internet channels. These sites are referred to as "pay-per-view." You must have password access to get to these. Most of the libraries referred to above will have access to such websites and databases. These require subscriptions. I tell my college students, "If the information you seek is actually valuable (i.e., it's worth paying for) then the person who wrote is going to charge for it. That should be a huge "duh!"
Just remember that you must be an "expert" in your subject matter. This applies whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. For example, if you are writing a historical novel, then you will need to do extensive research on the particular time period covered. Of course, if you are an Asian-American male writing a love story from the point of view of a Southern African American woman, then you'll need to do a great deal of reading into the mind of the type of woman you're portraying. What distinctive qualities would she have? What would be her prejudices, loves, hobbies, pre-suppositions, etc.?
While interviewing a well-respected writer of mystery-detective novels, I was not surprised to hear her say that she is constantly reading up on the latest in investigative techniques used by the FBI, the CIA, her home state police, and her local police department. She told me that the science behind regular investigations and, in particular, crime scene investigations is changing so radically that even the local police cannot keep up. So, she makes sure that she is on the cutting edge of technology in order to keep her novels as current and believable as possible. Her dedication should be duplicated by every writer who wants to make novels (and screenplays) enjoyable and salable.
So, do your homework so that your writing will reflect the hard work you've put into not just writing, but in knowing what to write.
A question I’m often asked is “Why is a screenplay supposed to be divided into three acts?” Allow me to venture an “educated” answer. In a simplistic way, that’s the way it’s done. And I don’t mean to be flippant about that answer because the top guru in screenwriting is Syd Field who has explained in several books and hundreds of workshops that very reason.
For many years Syd Field worked as a script analyst for several major studios in Hollywood. After nearly twenty years of reading and recommending numerous scripts that turned into numerous award winning movies, he realized that the best of the best seem to follow the same basic format. And that format was what he called the “paradigm” that included three acts (setup, conflict, resolution).
Anyone who has watched a standard two-hour movie on the big screen realized very quickly that the first thirty minutes usually sets up the story and introduces the main characters. The next hour or so develops the story in depth and follows the main character’s struggle to either solve a mystery or achieve a specific goal. Then the last thirty minutes contains the final struggle and climax to the story. Thus, three acts.
Now, do all movies have to have three acts??? Of course not. But then not every film maker wants or cares whether she has an audience that follows and understands her story. So, a person may write whatever way he wants. But, the filmmaker that wants people to watch his movie, tell other people to watch his movie, and have people think his movie is really good… well… I think you get my drift.
There is nothing wrong with tweaking the structure and making it do what you want it to do such as is the case with films like PULP FICTION and possibly RENDITION. But even those movies easily flow from set up into conflict and end with a resolution of some kind wherein the story being told is done.
In reality, screenwriting is more a skill than an art form. But like any skill, it can be used as an art form by an artistic genius. Unfortunately, there just simply are not very many artistic geniuses in the world.
So, "Good writing to you! And go out and watch a movie this week."
Herb Sennett is a retired teacher who writes and lives with his bride of over fifty years in South Florida, USA.
"Remember: writing should be fun. So trust your instincts and enjoy the ride!"