The other week, fellow South Seas survivor Bern asked me: Do you live with your characters? She’d been to a writers festival Q&A session where a guest novelist said that they lived with their characters rather intensely for the duration of a novel’s creation and that, two years or so on, well after publication and book-signings, it was strange to answer questions about those characters; it was like thinking back to old friends or acquaintances or lovers that one didn’t keep in touch with any more.My first response, of course, was that The Goddess would not allow such nonsense in the Mamea household. But when Bern laughed politely for the prescribed amount of time and didn’t move, I gave the question a bit more thought.
Firstly, the amount of time a screenwriter spends with a character is much shorter than a novelist might spend. A screenplay can be drafted in a mere three months, with the following six to a hundred months spent being produced or touted around or, uh, developed. (I thought I was being a bit off-hand here until I read this.)
Secondly, filmmaking is a collaborative business and a willingness to kill one’s darlings is essential to retain one’s sanity. Let’s say your favourite character’s called Wendy, a girly-girl with an Annie Oakley-like affinity for firearms. You base Wendy on fond kindergarten memories of a girly-girl who you loved to tease so she could throw you to the ground and sit on you. But no matter how much you massage the script, Wendy’s not cutting it. She’s not believable. So she makes way for Rick, a lantern-jawed ex-special forces veteran who doesn’t need blunt objects to maim and kill.
And thirdly – and to actually answer her question – no, I do not live with my characters because they’re only part of the story I want to tell. Playwright and screenwriter Jose Rivera puts it quite tidily:
Screenwriting is like building furniture. It’s a craft in which the pieces must fit, and it must function.
A large part of the enjoyment I get from screenwriting is in getting the mechanics of it all to work in such a way that the audience don’t see the seams.
Maybe I’m writing arse-backwards by starting with a situation and then populating it. But it works for me. And it feeds my closet god-complex.