Monday, August 06, 2007

Who Are You?

A script I was sent recently also included detailed character bios. I mean detailed down to preference of breakfast cereal.

Never send character bios with your script unless it is part of a pitch document for TV. And in that case it is broad strokes only, a couple of paras per character.
Personally, I rarely use them, except in the above case when it's pretty much a necessity.

I know that is sacrillege to some teachers, but I'm not a teacher. I'm not saying they're wrong, heck there are no absolutes in writing but when I create a character, normally after I have an idea and premise, [see previous post] I have just a few things in my head.

What do they want and how does that change?
What was their upbringing like and how can I use it?
What do they fear and how can I use it?
What are their relationships, familial and personal and how can I use them?
What are their quirks and habits, if any and how can I use them?

And that's about it. When I have that in my head I don't need to write it down. I work on inhabiting that character. It's a kind of osmosis, so that when I come to write that character, I am that character.

No wonder my marriage didn't last! I kid, it's not as spooky as it sounds. But I find it helps me to tailor dialogue and action to that specific character instinctively.

Because those five questions are all I think you really need to ''know'' your character. I suppose I could expand the answers to those questions to fill a couple of pages but simply by thinking about them, lodging them in my head, more feeling it than thinking specifics, I find I get to know them for their specific purpose. The reason for their creation. To drive or react to story.

It's about character traits and archetypes more than what side someone gets out the bed every morning.

In my pro reading days I once got a sci fi script to read and it was about twenty pages in before I actually reached the script. There were about 5 pages explaining what the script was about and 15 pages of bios for just about every speaking character.

Obviously I ignored them and went on to read the script. When I had read the script I went back to the bios. I had to out of curiosity. Because the script was terrible. I mean really terrible. Fifth rate knock-off of a very, very bad episode of the first series of Star Trek. Plodding. predictable story, cardboard characters, on the nose dialogue throughout.......just awful.

The bios were actually the best part of the script. Someone had been to college and been taught how to write them. Unfortunately they were completely wasted because virtually nothing in any of the bios actually came out in the script pages. Not in sub-text, actions, story ........nothing.

I felt if more time had been spent creating characters that would actually drive or react to story in a meaningful way rather than just creating characters, then the script might not have ended up quite the mess it was.

To me character and story are symbiotic, anything else is a waste of paper.


Anonymous said...

Now THAT'S a great checklist of what you need to know i.e. stuff that, as you say, you can actually use.

Very often just adding a simple trait can really lift a character off the page. On one show I wrote for we had an ,actress whose performance was shall we say, limited. No one wanted to write for her. We then decided to play her character as completely dense. Almost overnight that character clicked and became tremendous fun. The naturally blank expression she had dovetailed perfectly. It was comedy gold.


far away said...

yes - great list

Anonymous said...

I've been on 2 screenwriting courses and I learn more from your blog than I ever did on those.

And Oh God that Sci Fi script sounds familiar.

Keep up the good work