Monday, December 15, 2008

The Writing Week part 50 - Know Your Characters

Last week, I'd written a page of a brand new screenplay because of an idea I had. I knew how to kick it off, I knew the basic premise, and I knew I wanted to get the ball rolling on it. But I didn't know something very important; I didn't know who I was writing about.

When writing action specs, it's easy to throw in a lot of shooting, a lot of explosions, a lot of naked women (sometimes for no reason), and a lot of tough guys. At the end of the day, though, we writers have to remember something very fundamental: every character (OK, at least every protagonist) must have a goal. Even if it's a Bruce Willis type goal - i.e. keeping your crumbling family together while you kill 300 people - there has to be something the character is working toward. (Don't get me wrong, I dig a lot of Bruce's work. However, if you look at 95% of his movies, I can guarantee you that not only will he be a rogue or former cop, but his marriage or relationship with his children (usually a daughter) will be on the rocks. Somehow, his family life ties into his need to shoot a dozen terrorists every five minutes.) Even the most basic of action movies has a character with some story line, however crappy it may be, and some need, however ridiculous it might seem in context.

My mistake with the script is that I hadn't bothered to think that through clearly enough. I was so eager to write that first scene, to lay everything out, that I wasn't prepared to follow up with what had to come next, namely the introduction of my pro- and antagonists. Rookie mistake? Probably. One I won't make again? Probably not. The thing is, sometimes as writers, we also need that jolt, that first spark of creativity to get us working steadily again. I might not be set to work on the pages to this spec yet, but it allowed me to do something else entirely, something just as important, if not more so. It allowed me to see what I really wanted to write.

After that night of page-length success followed by realization of 99 page impotence, I knew that I wasn't yet ready to work on that project. I popped open Word and set to work on another outline for another script (got a first page for that one, too). The difference? I knew my characters. They weren't running around blowing crap up or racking up body counts that Braveheart would be jealous of. They were just being themselves. And I knew them well. I was ready to write.

Sometimes if you run into a wall in your writing, the best thing isn't actually to bust your fists knocking it down, but to turn around and find another road around it.


Onyx said...

I've become really interested in the subject of Character Goals lately. I think most would agree with you that a character must have a goal, and if you play it by the book (at least the book we were taught by) you find that your character usually has a fixed goal that he or she works towards from the beginning of act II on. I'm interested in the characters that have shifting goals and in a sense shifting story purposes. I've got a couple of scripts where the characters don't stay on the same path all the way through the second act. Would love to see some examples on paper or in film where this was done and done well, because on instinct I can't quite tell if it's working.

Cake Man said...

Knowing the script you're probably referring to, I would say that it's ok for a character's motivation or goals to change. One of the most recent examples I can think of is MILLION DOLLAR BABY. Circumstances arise at the end of Act 2 that change everything. Completely.

I know a lot of people really didn't like that turn, but I did. I actually thought it was pretty unique in how quickly it shifted directions. That doesn't happen a lot that I know of, and it was refreshing to see it done. I say go for it. Sometimes in movies, as in real life, something comes along that will throw a person to a completely different place than where he thought he'd be going.