Archive for March 27, 2019

It’s my character

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , on March 27, 2019 by dcairns
  1. Characters are defined by what they do, first and foremost. And how they do it. So they have to be as different from each other as possible, in what they do and how they do it, and what their goals are, in order to appear distinct.
  2. The audience likes to be surprised by your characters. Whether they are nice is not, ultimately, as important as whether they are surprising.
  3. It’s easier for smart characters to be surprising, but dumb ones can manage it too, with a bit of ingenuity on your part.
  4. You know when a character is surprising, funny, impressive, because you will be surprised, you will laugh, you will be impressed.
  5. Find something to admire in all your characters.
  6. “The really terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.”
  7. Coincidence and plot convenience are bad mainly because they have nothing to do with character.
  8. “Character is destiny.” What happens to characters is determined by who they are because they are actively struggling with their problems.
  9. Stealing characters is good practice. Putting them in a new context should change them enough. The surface details are the things than an audience will spot (ie Indiana Jones’s bullwhip).
  10. Get the plot moving right away because the character can’t be explored without it.
  11. Passive victims are not sympathetic. They might make us unhappy, but we can’t empathise.
  12. Villains should be extremely good at what they do. Stupid villains kill suspense by making things easy for the hero.
  13. If a character makes a mistake it should be understandable to the audience.
  14. It helps a lot if all the main character’s actions are understandable to the audience. Mysterious characters can be interesting but may not invite identification.
  15. “Audience identification” is much mor complicated than people think. The audience doesn’t need to agree with or approve of the character or resemble them in any particular. They need to understand them and find their struggles interesting. You can identify with a complete villain if you know what they want and understand the problems they face.
  16. Themes should emerge more or less naturally from the interaction of plot and character. Starting off with a theme can make a story sterile and artificial.
  17. “What the character is like” is just gossip. “What the character wants” and “what the character does” is meaningful and revealing.
  18. Force the character to make tough choices.
  19. A funny character is typically one whose personality prevents him/her from adapting to new situations. Inflexibility is key to most comedy. But you can sometimes go the other way and make a character funny and surprising by giving them an exceptional ability to adapt, because surprise is also key to comedy.
  20. If you have a character, put him/her in the worst possible situation for that specific person to be in: if they have a wooden leg, make them climb a ladder.
  21. With every character, give them at least one surprising or distinctive trait. The librarian with a single line of dialogue should still entertain us.
  22. Avoid the typical.
  23. “Likeable” isn’t a strong trait. If we genuinely like somebody, that’s great, but having them be fascinating is the main thing.
  24. “A passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”
  25. A character needn’t to succeed to impress us, but they need to struggle.
  26. Write with a specific actor in mind. But don’t then try to cast somebody who’s like that actor.
  27. Showing a character’s daily routine is a lousy way to characterise them, almost as bad as panning along their mantelpiece.
  28. Take each character as far as you can dramatically.
  29. Every character has his/her own story.
  30. Conflict is indeed a good way to express character. But as long as you have dramatic tension it should emerge anyway. Conflict is just an interpersonal form of tension.
  31. Perhaps we care about relationships more than we care about individual characters?
  32. What else? Ask the next question.

I found this checklist on my work computer. Apparently I wrote it for a class, used it once and forgot about it. It sounds a bit too Syd Field/Robert Mckee to me now, but if you don’t take it as prescriptive it may be a useful tool for avoiding certain problems in screenwriting.

Thanks to David Wingrove for the Big Head of Pola.