Wednesday, March 18, 2009

i've got something for your face!

As my writing instructor at AFI used to say, "Yearning equals earning." What he meant by that was if you show characters who are obsessed, who have deeply felt yearnings for someone or something (their plot goal) then you have a movie with great potential for earnings.
This week we took a look at the documentary Crazy Love for the purpose of studying character. It has all the classic details of a conventional narrative film (somebody wants something very badly; Burt's desire for Linda. It's almost impossible for him to get it; she's engaged to someone else, he's married- plus it gets worse when he hires thugs to throw acid in her face. In the end he gets what he wants; Burt and Linda have been married since the mid-seventies.) What sets this film apart though are the characters. Burt and Linda are unlike any conventional characters we know, and as such they're unforgettable. Normally I'd talk about the tricks the writer used to create these characters but in this case they are their own creation. Nevertheless we can break them down into specific traits that can be applied to your characters.

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of his present
  • Driven by a passion that exceeds logic and reason
  • Admits when he makes mistakes, breaks the rules
  • Aware of his crazy actions and unable to stop himself
  • Has initiative and ingenuity
  • Is charming when he gets what he wants
  • Is a real threat when denied what he needs

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of her present
  • Aware of her talents and abilities but does not abuse them (her youth, beauty and charm)
  • Takes adventure when it is offered, not one to shy away from life
  • Takes the moral high ground when confronted with betrayal
  • Lives life in defiance of her attacker as best she can
  • Finds overwhelming compassion and forgiveness for the unforgivable
  • Cutting insight and sense of humor
If you set out to write a fictional story about a man who throws acid in the face of his ex-girlfriend only to end up marrying her fifteen years later you might struggle with the plausibility issue. A documentary obviously does not have this problem. In fiction we have to believe in the characters first and foremost. Everything else hangs from that. I feel you can solve any plausibility problem in terms of plot so long as you've done the work of making your characters real. That doesn't just mean a well drawn character will work in any situation. Your characters have to be perfect for that situation.

When I start out to write a new script I begin by asking myself, why does this character have to go on this journey? From that question comes a set of character traits and flaws that they will explore and repair over the course of the story.

For our class I had my students watch the film then write a 1 to 3 page scene based on Burt and Linda. It could present any moment before, during or after the story in the film. The results were uniformly terrific. The reason, in my opinion, is that when you really know who your characters are your writing becomes more life like and dynamic. I encourage writers when struggling with a character's identity to try a couple of tricks. First go through your address book and see if there's anyone from real life you can base this character on. If not, go through IMDB and look at characters and actors. Sometimes having an actor in mind makes it easier to write. Either way, having that solid foundation in reality will make the process of writing for your characters easier and hopefully yeild a better script.

I'm going to a Film Independent seminar tonight; ten tricks for getting great performances from actors. I should have my notes posted tonight or tomorrow.

Next week we'll be taking a look at unsympathetic main characters in our analysis of The Honeymoon Killers.

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