Thursday, October 22, 2009

character notes

I went to the WGA Foundation panel discussion on Character this week. The panel was moderated by Dan Petrie Jr. and featured Dianne English, Bruce Joel Rubin and AFI's own Tom Rickman. I'm always a little iffy about these sorts of events because if the moderator doesn't do their job you're trapped in a conversation that may go nowhere for two hours. Be particularly wary of any panel discussion moderated by a celebrity. They just don't have the time to come up with insightful questions and they turn it over to Q&A at the first opportunity. Q&A never goes well as it's a chance for the crazy and the desperate to get some face time with the object of their personal obsession. Anyhow, long story short, Dan Petrie Jr. did an amazing job moderating the panel and the Q&A (while fully stocked with crazy/desperate questions) was not nearly as painful as it normally is. Here, with no further introduction, are the notes I took from that night.
  • Structure is a function of the behavior of the character. You can lay out all the structure you want, but it all comes from character. It's that question: what happens next.
  • Start your scene deeper into the scene than you thought. Repeated inforrmation is dull. Each scene should contain more and new information about your characters.
  • They are this and that. Contradictory information about your characters gives them depth and life. It is true that everyone we know contains contradictions in their personality. Your hero can't be all good and your villain can't be all bad.
  • Don't forget the theatricality - Good structure without character is mechanical and lifeless. Write big moments and scenes for your character. These are the kinds of moments that make an actor excited to play the part.
  • Have a character become someone you don't know. The good guy becoming the bad guy makes it much more interesting for the audience.
  • Build the anticipation before we see your character. This is particularly useful for your "bad guy" as you can create a mystique around them before we ever see them.
  • Characters come from self exploration. Writers of shallow characters are writing from off the top of their head. You, the writer, contain all aspects of the human experience within yourself - dig into that to find your character. Ask yourself, how are they like you? In the process of writing you are exposed to a massive level of self.
  • If as a writer you wind up not living a life you will not be able to draw on all that's out there in the world and you will not be able to write convincing characters and tell moving stories.
  • Do not base your characters on characters from other movies- you've got to bring more than that. Watch how people move. If we've seen it and heard it before we are not surprised. TV and movies are not research. Life is research.
  • Introduce a character with the weight that that character is going to have in the story. Small characters can be "COP 1" big characters must have a name, a life and a voice.
  • In the script be consistent with your name usage. Mrs. Peggy Winthrop, Peggy, Mrs. Winthrop, Peg. Pick one and stick with it - not all three (same goes for locations).
  • Characters who say what they mean are dull. Drama is getting to what they mean. Where are they hiding their truth? Do not have characters whose names all begin with the same letter. Glen Gary will lead to confusion.
  • Morris the explainer. Don't write the character who comes in and tells everybody what they need to know then disappears from the movie. This is sloppy and lame.
  • Let go of logic and predictability and be open to possibility.
  • Characters are self deluded. Slowly as you get toward the last act the truth your character has been avoiding comes out and bursts the bubble. The truth of self is revealed . Every story is the journey to truth. Getting to truth is what it's all about.

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