By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17718251
I’ve reached a point in a project where I can go one of two ways:
- go for the laughs — they’ll be earned laughs, but laughs nonetheless (not that there’s anything wrong with laughs); or
- go for the pathos — it’ll be painful but resonant and truthful (though painful).
Laughs are easy — at this point in development anyway (in front of an audience it’s a whole other thing). Pathos is a bit of a balancing act of grabbing an audience member’s heart and squeezing it just enough to leave an impression (and not, like, killing it).
A handy reminder at this point of development is to do what best serves the story — except that, with this project, it’s character-driven, so it’s down to how I best serve the character.
And if I want to serve the character to the best of my ability, then I must be honest with it, and see where that takes me.
… Well. That’s sorted, then.
(There’s a third way, of course: I could write both versions and test-audience the shit out of them.)
(Once upon a time I wrote a post where I said characters [are] only part of the story I want to tell — there’s something karmic going on here, I think.)
I think my approach to writing is pretty straightforward:
1. Meet JON.
2. Take something away from JON.
3. JON tries to reclaim whatever he lost in 2. above.
4. JON is justly rewarded. Or he fails but we grok his failure (and really, he hasn’t failed – he’s learned a valuable life lesson).
I find that kind of structure comforting.
But when I have something like —
1. Meet JON.
2. Meet ABE.
3. Meet MIKE.
— my chest tightens a little bit: it’s going to be about relationships. I can’t hide behind action defines character. JON, et al, are gonna have to interact.
One must hike one’s girdle and begin typing.
Put bitchy-whiney words in JON’s mouth to ABE about their friend Mike.
Get ABE into the spirit of the session with some colourful words of his own.
Throw MIKE in – but unbeknownst to JON and ABE.
… Mm. ‘S a start.
* Y’know: wi-fi turned off, browser icons tastefully out of sight, iTunes in the background but always within in reach.
Sean Molloy recently posted about who he bases his characters on – on other people, on himself, on other characters, and a combination of all three.
As always his post is a much more polite and tactful explanation than mine:
If I had a dollar for every friend I snuck into a script, I’d be twelve dollars richer; and if I had a fifty cent piece for each line of dialogue I’ve ripped off those same friends, I’d be comfortably wealthy.
I have a propensity to have my scripts’ role calls be a bountiful colours of Benetton kind of experience. I believe it’s in reaction to exclusive vanilla television indoctrination for the first couple of decades of my life.
The universe may have recognised my small contribution: John August has posted about the Bechdel Test.
In your script:
1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
Amongst the comments on that post was this from American multihyphenate Kevin Arbouet:
1. How many scripts out there have two or more black characters with names?
2. Do they talk about something other than how white people put them down/The Black Experience?
3. Are they a judge?
All my scripts – television in particular – satisfy the first question of both the Bechdel and Arbouet tests (extending the latter test to all non-European* ethnicities).
Not so many of the feature scripts pass questions 2 and 3 of the Bechdel. I’d like to say in my defence that in relation to question 3, my female characters may be discussing a man but it’s never in any romantic context.
As for questions 2 and 3 of the Arbouet, none of my ethnic characters talk about their struggle in this White Man’s World, nor are any of them in a powerful and/or well-respected positions, but they’re representative of the New Zealand I see both firsthand and in the news.
And that’s all one can ask of a script’s cast of characters: that they be appropriate, realistic and representative of whatever world you’re offering your audience.
* ‘Non-European’ – that’s ‘non-white’ to American readers.
When making small talk at gatherings, once all the parties’ occupations have had their two questions, an inevitable question thrown in my direction is What’s it like to work with actors? My usual answer is that they’re a necessary evil – a cross to be borne in order for us writers to tell our stories.
It gets a laugh – obviously I don’t give this answer when in the company of actor/s – but just between you and me, I’m a little afraid of actors.
Being a working screenwriter might be all about getting paid and buying things on TradeMe but it don’t count for a slab of Whittakers’ finest if you don’t get produced. And to get produced, amidst the small army of collaborators who will trample your ego, mince your work, and sully your vision are… actors.
Unless you take up puppeteering, anime or cartooning, you’re going to have to accept the fact that someone – not a clone of you, not some doppelganger of you – is going to take your words and –
– and what? At worst, expose you to be the hack you’ve been all along.
At best – and this happens more often than you think – bring your characters to life in ways you never imagined.
Of course what you see in readings/rehearsal/shooting/editing it’s not what you had in mind. Those uppity actors are asking a million questions about motivation, moulding your characters this way and that, challenging the backstory you created. They’re taking over… and as they put a face and tic and walk to your characters, they’re irrevocably changing them.
Change is good.
In the beginning, I didn’t care much for my character’s names. They just were, know-what-I-mean? Didn’t serial killers just happen to be called Gacy and Bundy? Didn’t Stallone and Schwarzenegger become action film brands? So what if my sister and I were named after our neighbours? (And why do people find this amusing?)
Names are important, though:
A name is like a tightly-wound DNA molecule, capable of conveying information about characterisation, tone, story and theme.
– Elliott & Rossio
I’ve long since run out of first and middle names of friends, family and acquaintances. Unlike John August, no streetnames I can remember or think of lend themselves to being affixed to my puppets characters.
I have to work at it. But maybe I learnt from the best:
My MOTHER cradles her week-old grandson, DAVID (not his real name), and makes coo-ing noises. My FATHER peers at the packet of swaddling and wrinkles.
What’s his name?
My mother wrinkles her nose.
What sort of name is David?
‘S a great name – direct and unambiguous.
My father nods slowly and, after a beat, clears his throat:
We will call you... Safune.
He likes that.
(getting a little cross)
What’s wrong with David?
Safune and his grandparents ignore the recently-minted father and leave the room.
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.