It's the CHARACTERS, stupid!
Powerful and believable characters are essential to the life of every dramatic screenplay, and the screenwriter's relationship with the characters is the primary relationship, requiring a degree of genuine intimacy if the enterprise is going to generate dramatic stories that are neither stale nor predictable.
What binds the writer and the writer's interest to a character is a PROBLEM or disturbance that upsets or undermines the habits (actions) and habits of thought (beliefs) of the character in question. The problem must also carry a sense of urgency - unless the character acts NOW, the problem will get much worse.
As the screenwriter's relationship with the characters in the script develops, the writer will find him/herself forming relationships with other characters, seemingly extraneous to the script, namely the AUDIENCE and what I refer to as the TRIBE or TRIBES of the writer. These are not characters in the strictest sense, but they aren't utterly different from them either. Both are imaginary entities grounded in the writer's experience and essential to the birth of the drama. The degree of their involvement - or lack of involvement - in the process can significantly affect and influence many of the choices that the writer makes, as will as determine the quality of the relationship the writer has with the characters in the story. These meta-characters and the writer's relationship with them provide illuminating and contrasting vantage points that make it possible for the writer to work as a medium for character and story.
The fundamental relationship that lends "heart" to the screen storytelling experience is the relationship that develops between the writer and the characters. As the relationship between the writer and the characters attains a degree of intimacy and emotional connectedness the writer will find him/herself working more and more as a MEDIUM. In short, the writer enters ever more profoundly into relationships that permit him/her to relinquish control and allow the characters - including the audience and the tribe - to interact and influence the decisions and responses of one another unfettered by the fears and personal ax-grindings of the ego-centered writer.
As one might expect, character-based screenwriting is fraught with pitfalls, and is at times supremely frustrating. One does not create compelling characters as one might bake a cake. One does not create them at all, not by oneself that is. One must woo them, entice them, get to know them, enter into a frank and open exchange with them, if they are to reveal anything at all of their hidden potentials, including the anxieties, wounds and secret prayers that lend them their emotional depth. One must become a virtual hunter, lying in wait, ear pressed to the ground, patiently watching, open, ready.
When one works as a medium, one cannot be in too big a hurry. The mediumistic revelation of dramatic characters takes time. Wham, Bam, Thank-you-Ma'am seldom works - does it ever??? And yet, there are so many writers that are driven to turn out any number of bad scripts rather than spend their time making one good one. There are far too many premature ejaculators in this industry.
In my experience, the conventional route taken by most mediocre script writers is
CONCEPT --> PLOT --> CHARACTER
A writer has an idea - or what I refer to as a notion (usually intriguing but invariably undramatic). The writer hatches a rough plot-line, that illustrates the notion in some (all too frequently) predictable or illogical manner. Often, the writer already knows the ending and works assiduously arranging events so that the characters will eventually intersect with the preordained target.
This is the TARGET-SHOOTING METHOD of screenwriting - a paint-by-numbers approach that hordes of neo-Aristotelians crow about, the leading exponents of which churn out books and workshops like proverbial snake-oil salesmen, advantaging themselves at the expense of hapless and gullible knowledge bags who may end up spending thousands of dollars discovering there is no recipe.
The Writer-as-Big-Game-Hunter in the shooting gallery of mediocrity takes a bead on every target the gurus have told him about, tracking down each beat, turning point, and climax with somnolent enthusiasm. Employing this method, every event in the plot becomes "a dot" and the behavior of the characters functions merely as a way of connecting all the dots so as to arrive at the "picture". Because it is invariably formula-driven, one usually anticipates the picture before it actually appears, thus rendering the experience thoroughly predictable.
Such an approach to drama is both chauvinistic and manipulative, chauvinistic in terms of the characters ("cut-outs" might be a more appropriate word for them) and manipulative in terms of the audience and the audience's response. Invariably, such stories boil down to being little more than propaganda, sentimentality or pornography - some times all three!
Alternatively. the character-based approach to screenwriting starts with CHARACTER, and with a PROBLEM that compels the character to act. Motivated by the "PROMISE" of justice, salvation, freedom or merely something better or safer, the character struggles to turn the promise into a reality - to achieve his or her objective or goal. Drama arises when the quest is frustrated by forces that are antagonistic to or incompatible with the character's struggle or predicament, thus forcing the character to fight for what he/she desires. In some powerful, unpredictable and thoroughly credible way, the character must find a way of transforming or over-coming this opposition if he/she is to succeed. In the course of doing, the character, her/himself is changed.
In character-based, screen storytelling, one accompanies each character on their journey - protagonist and antagonist - finding in each the inner strengths and weaknesses that are relevant to the strategies and actions employed.
Plot vs Story
Plot is NOT the same thing as Story. Plot is the selection and ordering of actions that dramatise the Story.
Plot is ACTION and ORDER in TIME.
Story is ACTION, ORDER, TIME, as well as WHY and WHAT.
Plot is a journey towards the revelation of the WHY and the WHAT.
A satisfying and emotionally powerful plot withholds information about the why and the what, wrapping them both in MYSTERY and SUSPENSE and keeping the mystery and suspense viable up to the final climax.
Drama is about emotion - getting a powerful emotional response from one's audience, a response that is powerful enough to provoke insight.
Plot is one thing happening after another; Story is about why do the characters care; and more importantly, why do I - the audience - care?
Guns, car chases, and explosions can only take you so far. How many screenplays have I read that are about characters wanting money? Or wanting to keep or save their jobs? Who cares? Unless there is something in the story that allows me to enter the emotional life of the characters and identify with them - in short, to have a relationship with them that I care about - then no amount of car chases or special effects will make any difference.
While it may seem natural to want to impress a script reader or a producer with a BIG story, when it comes to intimacy and creating emotionally compelling drama it's always best to remember the old adage, "size doesn't matter". If you aren't able to get the most intense and exciting scripts from small stories you won't stand a chance of doing it with big ones.
The key to it all is open-ness - the kind of openness that relies on courage and vulnerability. It will be impossible to have meaningful (emotionally viable) relationships with your characters without the courage to become open and vulnerable.
The truth of your characters resides in their emotional life, a life that is not only buried deep within them, but deep within you as well. If you are to plumb their depths you must also plumb your own. What characters do must be TRUE to them emotionally, with all the complexity their emotional life contains, as well as all the disguises and repressions they employ and harbor.
The search for character cannot adequately proceed without also making a search of oneself. A dramatic character is invariably an aspect of ourselves that we do not yet fully recognise. The process of writing a dramatic screenplay is - in part - a revelatory process of revealing some hidden aspect of ourselves to ourselves. The reason we write a screenplay, it seems to me, is to find out why we are writing it.
Characters, like the characters who write them (i.e.: writers) are driven by needs or motivating drives to attain something of value. Drama itself is an exploration of a motivating drive as it is manifested in the actions of a character and his quest (the story). The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, grouped these drives into a hierarchy of categories. Maslow's hierarchy holds that drives form a kind of Great Chain of Becoming, so that one must first fulfill the needs of one category before moving on to the next. From the most basic to the most complex these can be expressed as follows:
Physiological needs - oxygen, food, water, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
Security needs - order, law, limits, stability, etc.
The need to Belong or be Loved - family, affection, marriage, etc.
Esteem needs - achievement leading to self-esteem, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
Cognitive needs - knowledge, meaning, etc.
Aesthetic needs - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
Self-Actualisation needs - self-fulfillment and peak experiences.
Transcendence needs - helping others to achieve self-actualisation.
All dramatic storytelling is by definition TRIBAL storytelling. Each of us is a carrier of the wisdom of our tribe or tribes, and the dramatic stories must necessarily reflect or feature the tribal struggles we are heir to. You cannot effectively write a story about a tribe that you do not belong to. To be - or to become - a storyteller of one's tribe one must first have been touched at one's core by that tribe. You must be so imbued with the tribe's emotional life that when you write of its people you write from your own soul, speaking for them and allowing them to speak through you. If a character is to flourish with all of the emotional depth and complexity that a audience expects, a writer must write from his/her tribal origins. Not until the writer's origins intersect with the characters' origins does ORIGINALITY become possible.
This is not to say that there are topics from which you are forever barred. Anyone can write about anything so long as they find a way of becoming initiated into the tribe that they wish to write about. This initiation process, once upon a time, was thought of as RESEARCH. But the term seems rather inadequate, suggesting as it does a second-handedness that is not implied by the experience of initiation.
Director, Rolf de Heer, is not an Aborigine so far as I know, but he was nevertheless able to receive and transmit Ten Canoes, MEDIUMISTICALLY, by virtue of his obsessive interest and involvement with the people of Arnhem Land. His initiation, whilst probably not in any sense traditional, nevertheless opened him to the world, the values and emotions of the tribe with whom he worked, enabling a relationship that mitigated against the sort of interference and fear a non-initiated whitefella might have inflicted upon such a project. It is not so much a matter of writing from what you know, but writing from what you don't know, based an an abiding faith that you are in the right place at the right time with the right people because they accept you and you accept them. Most simplistically, character-based writing demands that you write from what you FEEL.
Finally, we come to the essential questions of character-based screenplay writing. As a dramatic screenwriter you have to think and feel and explore like an actor. Put yourself into a character's shoes and ask:
Who am I?
What am I?
Where am I coming from?
What do I want? Why do I want it?
Who or what is in the way of me getting it?
What do I have to do to get what I want?
You can't wait for the actor to provide the answers to these questions. They have to be in the script.
A character that chooses danger or hunger must have a credible reason for doing so otherwise the audience won't understand the emotional logic of the choice. Most people avoid danger, and they avoid hunger unless motivated by a need higher and more compelling than the biological one. When a writer enters into a relationship with a character, he/she also enters into a relationship with that characters entire system of values and the tribal groups whose influence has encouraged the inculcation of those values.
Dramatic characters are frequently stimulated into action through their investment in illusion. Their vulnerability and the risks they face are often the result of gaps in their awareness. Their will – expressed in their actions – will work against them if they lack the awareness of where and how to direct it. Stories have dramatic impact to the extent that they are conducted by characters whose diligence alters the conditions – both physical and psychological – in which they are operating. The most vital and emotionally credible characters are always possessed of a discernment that makes inner change possible. It is also possible that their discernment and imagined wisdom is what has created or contributed to the problems they are experienced in the first place. The most profound illusions can be traced to a character’s inner contradictions, some times expressed as false dichotomies. The dichotomies may be as basic as the seeming separation between inner and outer needs, but in the end, the character realises there is no separation at all, and in realising this, changes the outer by changing the inner.
“Each character has one over-all spine throughout the whole movie. In each scene, although the action verb may change frequently, each character has one objective. In life our needs don’t turn on and off haphazardly. We don’t necessarily stop needing something even when we do get it. And we certainly don’t stop needing something just because we realize we can’t have it.”
"The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings."
- Martin Buber
"Writers write because they cannot allow the characters that inhabit them to suffocate them. These characters want to get out, to breathe fresh air and partake of the wine of friendship; were they to remain locked in, they would forcibly break down the walls. It is they who force the writer to tell their stories."
- Elie Wiesel
Screenwriters that understand character-based drama - and there are very few of them - are acutely aware of the preeminence of character. It is the characters and their actions that build and release emotional energy both within and outside the story.
Unfortunately, in speaking of character, too many film storytellers automatically think that what is being referred to is the dramatis personae of the actual script. This is a limited and limiting point of view, and encourages a form of chauvinism that creates and reinforces destructive and frustrating prejudices and misunderstandings for any screenwriter seeking a closer, more intimate relationship with the characters necessary for finding the emotional potency that lies buried in the language of the screenplay.
To enter into the lives of the characters in a script, one must also be entered by them! ALL of them! And this includes those other characters necessary to the finding of the story - namely, one's audience and one's tribe, whilst all the time being sensitive to the "multifariousness" nature of that most elusive and problematic character of all, the screenwriter. One must take special care in in the case of the screenwriter, for that character almost always believes he/she is entitled to exert control over the others. Nothing could be further removed from the actuality of finding the drama than that misguided assumption.
Dramatic characters are characters that move - they act, and through their actions are changed. The on-going dialogic amongst ALL the characters responsible for birthing a dramatic screen story is informed by an emotional logic that, when in evidence, makes us - the screenwriter/character - see and feel the "truth" of what is being enacted and expressed. It is both a humbling and inspiring experience.
In speaking of the ACTION one must constantly be aware that the movement of authentic characters is both external and internal.
A character acts in order to achieve a desired objective in the physical world, something which we can see and/or hear. But in effective drama there is always an emotional component to this striving... which one grasps imaginatively by a sensitive "reading" the subtext and context of what is seen and what is heard.
A boxer wants to win the heavyweight title so that he can be "somebody", but the reason he wants to be somebody is so he can get his girl back. What he really wants is love. What we see is him fighting the fight of his life, losing, and his girlfriend watching the fight on the television with an expression that tells us she she cares more about him than anyone else in the world.
All drama begins with a character who becomes disconnected from something important to him or her, a disconnection that gives rise to pain (or suffering), risk and a sense of urgency, forcing the character to ACT in order to put an end to the suffering, and achieve both the outer objective and the inner goal or fulfillment of the character's emotional need or desire. In most stories the character succeeds, but not always. vide: Chinatown.
So who are these characters that people the worlds of dramatic screen storytelling?
Where do they live when they're not actually strutting their stuff on a screen or in a script?
The short answer is they are YOU.
Characters are aspects of our selves. In fact, we are teeming with them!
In recent times, a range of teachers, philosophers, psychologists and others have attempted to delineate the basic character types found within the human family. The ideas of Freud, Maslow and others are well known. Less known is the contribution of Aboriginal "skin systems" to our understanding of human nature - an area that is ripe for study for any one with a modicum of imagination and a yearning for real adventure.
More recently, a Bolivian teacher, Oscar Ichazo, began assembling various notions derived from indigenous peoples, Sufi teachings and the work of George Gurdjieff. One of the outcomes of his research and thought was the development of a system of personality types, collected under the now well-known designation, Ennegrams.
For Ichazo, there were essentially nine archetypes, corresponding to the Divine Forms or Platonic Solids, qualities of existence that are essential, that cannot be broken down into constituent parts.
Interestingly, Plato's idea maintained enough freshness to be taken up by Plotinus in his central work, The Enneads, which ultimately found its way into the meditations of early Christian mystics exploring the notion of pure consciousness. Later, these Divine forms became distorted into the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth.
In discovering new ways of dealing with old problems, one can do worse than return to the wisdom of the Ancestors, which apparently is what Ichazo did. It would seem that his translations and interpretations of the ancient intuitions and insights have a contribution to make to our understanding of dramatic characters and the stories.
It might be interesting to have a look at the script you are working on now and see what character types are at play within your story.
THE NINE TYPES
Number One - The Reformer
Highly responsible characters with a sensitivity to others' suffering and a strong desire to improve the conditions they encounter. They are idealists, fighting for their ideals. They are mindful of right and wrong and will "play it by the book" in order to ensure that their efforts cannot be undermined by officialdom, or by any insinuation of moral laxity. They believe they are "good" people, and do not easily express anger, or when they do, never do it overtly. Nevertheless, they do harbor resentment for those that don’t share their ideals or a commitment to working hard for a good cause. This resentment is frequently expressed with sarcasm, eye-ball rolling and severe, disapproving looks. They often come across as highly critical and judgmental because they invariably focus on mistakes. They are also hard on themselves, and maintain a ruthless inner who keeps a running commentary about their own shortcomings and how they are measuring up. Morals are important to them and they can be excellent models for admirable behavior. They have a penchant for details but some time cannot see the forest for the trees.
Number Two - The Helper
Group-minded, tuned in to the feelings of others, they love nothing more than TO SERVE, sometime to the point of being irritating. They love giving advice. even when it is not wanted. They like to be acknowledged for their service, and are easily offended or hurt when not appreciated for their efforts. Their concern with helping others often means they overlook their own needs, and are reluctant to accept help from others. They give much more easily than they take, which can make them seem prideful. They are not averse to talking about themselves. and may dominate a conversation without even being aware of it. The know how to "work a room" flitting from one person to another with ease, depending on their emotional whims and where they feel they can be of most use. They are the power behind the throne; and enjoy the thick of office politics. They are nurturers - the consummate parent type. Their sensitivity can make them effective mentors. Indeed, any occupation that demands attention to the needs of others, especially the less fortunate, is the perfect niche for the Helper.
Number Three – The Achiever
Hard workers with lots of energy. They are goal oriented, with a tendency to neglect personal relationships and feelings. They enjoy success, especially the material rewards it brings, whether it is a new car, a fur coat, or a European holiday. Failure is not a word they acknowledge - setbacks are minor inconveniences on the way to greater achievements. They love projecting a winning image, and are prepared to lie to themselves and others about their situation in order to present the sort of image they deem useful to their plans. They are zealous in seeking recognition, and will willingly accept or take all the credit for a project without acknowledging others. Their competitiveness is both their strength and their weakness. They are astute when it comes to reading the desires of others... but only because it will give them the edge or enable them to manipulate a situation for their own ends. Confusing image with substance, they frequently project a lack of depth and integrity. They can be highly efficient - even if they have to cut corners, and naturally enthusiastic. They have a facility for rallying others to their cause, and can be effective team leaders.
Number Four - The Individualist
This is the tragic romantic - the character that lives with a feeling that they are missing something essential. They are full of envy and long for something that might fulfill them. They believe that life is a puzzle and that their is a missing piece that - if only they could find it, would answer all their suffering with joy. They believe in ideal relationships. Mr or Miss Right is possible. A great job worthy of their talents is possible. A different lifestyle is possible. Alas, if only! They are geniuses when it comes to identifying and analyzing their inner emotional landscape, they are obsessed with it, and love exploring the emotional landscape of those in whom they are interested. They crave meaningful connections with others, but are often their own worst enemies owing to the fact that so few people seem to understand their truly unique feelings and perceptions. Wanting some kind of meaning in their lives, they will often resort to living in dreams. They place great significance upon synchronistic meetings, personal rituals, signs and omens. They are not afraid to deal with issues such as death and grief since these also add relevance their life. They are lovers of beauty, and, given the chance, will always surround themselves with visually pleasing physical environments.
Number Five - The Observer
This character is the ascetic, the minimalist, the survivalist, that can make do with very little - they prize their solitariness and privacy more than almost anything. They enjoy their own company. It gives them time to think about life and follow up their own, private passions. They may seem cold; they are often abrupt with others. They hate messy, emotional situations, and will avoid them at all costs. They are prone to keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves, and, as a consequence, are often difficult to read. They are reflective and the fruits of their reflections can make them interesting and stimulating conversationalists in the "right" company. They prefer discussions in depth.Ideas are important to them. It is a great honor to them to be respected for their practical suggestions and intellectual theories. They are specialists, and masters of whatever craft they choose. For them, comfort is associated with planning. They don't like surprises. They can synthesise details into coherent systems or theories and are keen observers of others' behavior. They can provide sound and useful consul to others. They are succinct.
Number Six - The Guardian
They tend to be worriers, constantly scanning the horizon - like mercats - for any sign of potential danger. They crave safety and security, but their response to threats is not always predictable. Depending on circumstances they may either draw back challenge them head-on. Trust is an issue; they want to trust others, yet may put off potential collaborators because of a natural suspiciousness. Authority figures are especially suspect; they feel uneasy around those they perceive to have power over them. They have a hard time making decisions. They don't mind joining groups, which helps them ward off feelings of loneliness. They see the world in terms of allies or foes, those who support them (friends) and those who might oppose them (enemies). They are highly opinionated and enjoy arguing their point of view. They are psychic and sensitive to potential problems, which makes them great at troubleshooting and preparing for crises and difficulties. They make very loyal friends and great benefactors of others less fortunate than themselves.
Number Seven - The Enthusiast
They like to make plans for future opportunities to entertain themselves. This focus produces a gluttonous craving for amusing diversions that shield them from life's painful realities. As a result they shy away from responsibilities, which might limit their freedom to experience all the pleasant possibilities life can offer. They keep their options open, resist commitments. They are elusive and hate being pinned down. They can, nevertheless, see limitless potential, and love brainstorming ideas for new projects. They have vision. Unfortunately they can become easily bored, and so are not as good at following through and completing the work they have started. Synthesizers of diverse theories, they can be very persuasive in convincing others to follow their dream. They enjoy the sound the own voice and have narcissistic tendencies, demanding excessive attention. Nonchalant and irreverent, they dislike rigid hierarchical structures with routine work, preferring ad hoc teams and multiple tasks. Upbeat and optimistic they can be wonderful comedians and improvisers who have the ability to spread joy and laughter.
Number Eight – The Controller
The controller character comes on strong, fully engaged with others. This character doesn't mind confronting others if there is a disagreement. If they become angry they don’t hesitate to express their feelings forcefully and can intimidate others with their ferocity. They are often gifted leaders, they take command of situations and rule over territory they have carved out for themselves. They can become too controlling by acting as the sole authority and invading others’ boundaries. Their animal magnetism and lust for life can manifest as excess in different areas of their life, e.g., long working hours, high-risk adventures, sensate pleasures and rollicking good times. Because they perceive situations in black and white terms they tend to reject others’ perceptions and only see their version of reality. Blunt talkers, they hate to feel manipulated and expect people to give them the straight goods. They make great advocates who aren’t afraid to break the rules or confront those in authority. Concerned with issues of justice and fairness, they will seek revenge if they feel wronged. Inside they feel vulnerable but rarely let others see it. They can move mountains for causes they support.
Number Nine - The Mediator
The main problem for the Mediator is prioritizing tasks. They readily lose focus and are side-tracked by unimportant details. Concerned with conserving energy, they tend to be slow moving and methodical. Their slothful nature craves familiar routines and creature comforts. They go with the flow, which means they have a hard time accepting changes and setting goals. They become stubborn if pushed to move faster or work harder, tending to merge with others’ agendas, then losing sight of their own needs. When this happens it's easier for them to identify what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. They prefer consensus to making decisions on their own. They enjoy ruminating more than deciding, and on philosophical considerations, a natural penchant, is also a way to put off making a decision and taking conflict is anathema to them; they will avoid it at all costs. They will also avoid problems, maintaining that everything will work out if everyone stays amiable and connected. Unaware of their own power, they can easily concede to others to avoid any disagreements. They can see all sides of an issue. They are able to spread goodwill and harmony amongst the discord of others.
Any careful reading of the above character types will make the reader aware that each of us, at different times during any typical day, manifest many of the traits of every one of these character types. It is a misreading of these types to presume that any human being can be reduced simply to type no matter how convenient it may seem. This proviso, however, not be construed as a damning criticism of the basic system or as a reason to dismiss it out of hand. The point is: we ARE all of these characters (and more) - which is what enables us to write effective dramatic scripts with characters of much greater diversity than what might otherwise be the case if we were to work merely out of the confines of our own, narrow ego.
The ego is but one specialised bundle of imaginary solutions by which we penetrate the phenomenal world - the realm of the projected imagination. Each of us during any typical day of our lives, in our various interactions with various people, is a "mediator;", a "helper", an "enthusiast", etc. etc. In finding and contributing to the birth of dramatic stories, it is our challenge not to deny, judge, censor or fear these others that inhabit our being, but to allow them their time and place in the sun of the story that seeks to shine out, fully embodied by characters and character actions. Understanding one's characters IS understanding one's selves.
“Character arc” is one of those terms that has crept into film-making in the last decade or so. When the studios were making those great movies of the 1930s, or even the late 60s-early 70s, nobody asking what the character arc of anybody was. They were just telling stories about people. Stories were made, and their making employed language, and the language had meaning because it was connected to things and actions that one actually experienced first-hand.
As the attention span of human beings has been chiseled away by sound bytes and the seductiveness of the noble short-cut, the enshrinement of the abbreviated life has found expression in jargon.
The term “character arc” is yet another example of an evermore pervasive jargon that is stupefying. It has come into use because people are looking for short cuts to writing screenplays. They are also keen on finding short cuts when it comes to thinking about screenplays. ”Character arc" is one of these short cuts. One of the things that you notice when you go to a book or a seminar about screenplay writing is that you see and hear these short cuts, in abundance.
We live in a world in which more people than ever are writing screenplays. Theoretically they ought to be better just on the basis of percentages. But they're not getting better. The seemingly eternal complaint of most producers and studio executives is that there are not enough good screenplays, or enough good writers.
Writers, like characters, are either credible or not credible. A credible writer is one whose creative choices and actions provoke our emotional identification with the characters in the story, while the writer that lacks credibility seems unerringly tied to recipes or templates that result in predictable, unbelievable and undramatic characters and situations; in short, the frustration of good storytelling is the inclination of uncreative and lazy people to find easy solutions for difficult questions.
Mediocre storytellers look for character arcs. Storytellers look and listen for characters.
Imagine what it might be like if all of storytelling was reduced to the equivalent of a supermarket where all elements of the storytelling enterprise had been transformed into commodities. With one’s recipe clutched tightly in one’s grubby little fist, one could order up – with the assistance of the right jargon – an entire script:
"I'll have 3 character arcs and a kilo of climax by page 63, garnished with a couple of turning points, five acts and one inciting incident.”
In this way, the material becomes ever more artificial and stale.
If you don't have a template for your personal relationships, why would you employ one with your characters?
IMPERFECT CHARACTERS - PERFECT MASKS
- Gilles Deleuze
"Man is not the sum of what he already has, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have."
- Jean-Paul Sartre
Ever noticed how the daily cultivation of the usual routine shrinks space and time to a manageable status quo? And how readily one's quest for predictability, comfort and safety leads to laundry, selfish sex, phone bills, coffee, and grocery lists; and how with the onset of middle-age, the character that you think you are becomes more and more preoccupied with weighing up the relative merits or what you've achieved and what it really means, and if you’re honest with yourself, how you eventually arrive at the realisation that you've probably thrown away more than you’ve managed to save?
I must've been about 22 or 23 when I started mulling over these ideas, spurred along by the death of my parents within a month of each other, an experience that I am certain contributed to a sudden and disconcerting perception that I was much more incomplete than I'd ever imagined I was - a creature of blind habits and fears for whom growing up was ironically turning into a growing smaller. And with the death of my parents I realised that the act of disappearing altogether was a real possibility. More than that, it was was unavoidable. It was an arresting thought, this notion that there would come a time when I was no longer necessary. I could already feel it creeping up on me. The world was going to go on, with or without me, no matter what I did or didn't do. The next generation was already on its way, arriving as it always does, in shoals, and it would eventually fill the space I was filling, just as my generation had filled the one left by those that had come before. Where the hell did they go? The whole thing made me feel extremely anxious. How much more easier life would be if there was a way of transforming the anxiety of our essential finiteness into a moment of inspired vision, and in so doing, find something more sublime, something that built courage, like an angel slapping us in the face, goading us with the possibility of love and selfless dedication. At the time, it didn't seem very likely, but I did take some comfort from the old, native American saying: "Go to the mountaintop and cry for a vision."
Alas, the only revelation I can put my hand on at the moment is the one I had more than a decade ago living in a mobile home park outside Santa Cruz, California, a revelation that dawned so slowly it's probably incorrect to call it a revelation at all. The more we live the closer we come to death. The more we act the further away we travel from birth, from our source, from those mystical origins where forgetting is not possible because there is nothing to forget, or so we think. But that wasn’t the revelation. The revelation came as a growing awareness that to be human is to be perpetually caught in a situation of irony. And - if one is a storyteller - one eventually realises that the same thing applies to dramatic characters.
Fixed within a world bounded by habit and routine, dramatic characters are thrust into action by a perceived need to fight for something that they care about, a fight that carries grave risk and not to mention the real possibility of failure. However, there is a difference between dramatic characters and ourselves. Most of us live lives in which the stakes are seldom if ever high enough to force us to step out of our secure routines. Nailed to the demands of work, home and appetite, we operate within a scenario that rarely rises to the level of a B-grade melodrama. Not that life doesn’t have its moments; it's just that has too few of them, and like any drug, you have to keep taking more and more of it to get the same high. For most of us, the risks are manageable and the rewards, though modest, more preferable to almost anything else we might - even in our wildest imaginations - stake our lives on. And yet there is always in the background a sense of loss, of not being there, of missing something.
The last and most important emotional remnant of the 20th century, codified and immortalised in the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, is an ironic lament for a lost father - a lament that speaks bitterly to something in each of us. Sabotaged by guilt and his feelings of rejection and inadequacy, Willy is unable to overcome his feeling of temporariness, an abiding realisation that he is an under-appreciated, inconsequential after-thought in the account book of history. It is the notion of the Fall that runs through most of Miller's work - the fear and the reality of the disconnection that drives the human heart, that amplifies and gives meaning to its inherent imperfections. Willy is the consummate imperfect character, ill-equipped to live in the present because of what he has been unable to find in his past, the finding of which is a door to the present, and that which is becoming present (not yet). Locked in by his fears as well as by his guilt, he can only live moment to moment, fragment by fragment, where what might be lived loses itself in what is remembered and forgotten - the imperfection of an ontological incompleteness.
No matter how cleverly we disguise our anxieties they bear witness to the imperfect nature of the human heart. To be is to become. To become is not to be. We are a work-in-progress, incomplete, imperfect, unrealised, and by virtue of temporal actions, temporary - a verb more than a noun, an inner quest and an outward odyssey framed by metaphors, like Escher's "Print Gallery"; we make the endless journey round the pictures, retracing our steps in forgetfulness, avoiding but mindful of the space where there are no pictures, where there is no gallery, where there is nothing at all. And like flies in a fly bottle, trapped by a failure of vision, we go round and round and round the moebius loop of a print gallery of our own making, a picture inside a picture inside a picture, forever.
I'm reminded of the time the Aboriginal elder, Nosepeg Tjupurrula, came to Sydney and visited one of the galleries, accompanied by Mick Namararri and Tutama Tjapagarti. Invited by the owner/dealer to come upstairs and have a look at the pictures, the men trudged up the steps and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes Nosepeg paced round the room staring at the art before eventually settling on a large, Magritte-like scene featuring a day-time sky and a night-time street lined with prim, well-lit houses. A row of thoroughly civilised and manicured trees lined the street, each tree encircled by a wrought-iron fence. However, one of the trees was missing, and in its place, also encircled by wright-iron, was a naked Aboriginal man clutching a spear. Nosepeg stared at the man, leaning in very close, then stepping back, shakin ghis head. He called to his friends. Together, they stared at the image. It seemed to make them all very sad. "Tsk Tsk," Nosepeg frowned, "might be kurni poor bugger this one." They looked at it for a very long time, then showed no interest in anything else, apart from the tea. "So," the dealer said at last, "how did you like the work?" Biting off a piece of Arrowroot biscuit, without looking at the dealer, Nosepeg nodded, "Rrrrreeeallllyyyy." Then, after a short pause, turning to the dealer, he added: "But when do we see the pictures?"
Given our native inventiveness, we might very well have succeeded in bricking ourselves into an eternal private fortress had it not been for our love of stories and storytelling, which have as their primary preoccupation the presentation of the veritable situation of irony into which we have fallen. There are plenty of stories that serve to bolster and sustain the illusions and prejudices that entertain us into a sense of belonging, and those stories invariably find their place. However, dramatic stories when fully realised and appreciated are possessed of qualities that do much more than merely entertain. The belonging is not an addition to reality but a multiplication of meaning that enlarges and illuminates our response-ability. Indeed, a major preoccupation of dramatic stories is to imaginatively present and extrapolate upon the nature of the confines within which humanity operates, portraying the actions of characters caught up in a quest for something that they have lost, or striving to overcome some grave problem or obstacle that threatens their well-being or the well-being of those they love. Such stories have a mythic quality because they dramatise modes of thought-in-action within the context of a situation of irony. In doing so, they provide insights into the nature of what it means to be human, of what it means to be in this world, as we conceive it.
One dramatisation of this state of being can be found in the story of the so-called Fall of Man, as enacted by Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and God, in Genesis. In that story, the characters of Adam and Eve, created in God’s image, exist in a place of joyous and carefree plenty. Carefree except for the presence of desire in the human characters, and a primordial wish embodied in the form of a serpent that exists outside of any act of creation.
Two trees grow in the center of the Garden; they stand side-by-side: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God, who has given Adam and Eve everything, has granted them the freedom to do whatever they wish, bar one restriction; they must not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All else is permitted, but not this. This is withheld. However, so long as they honour God’s request, they will live in tranquility among the animals, birds, and plants in the Garden.
The Serpent dwells in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – a curious entity that seems to be the only creature God has not created – a primordial force that was there, perhaps, even before Creation Times. The pre-existence of such a creature is memorialised in the myths and legends of most of the world’s indigenous peoples – Warnampi (the Rainbow Serpent) from the Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia is a case in point.
The Serpent that nestles in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a wily character; he speaks the secret wish that Eve carries in her heart and tempts her to eat the fruit of the tree by making her feel that there is something God has withheld from her and Adam. He causes her to imagine something more than what she can touch or smell or breathe or understand. Far from having everything they could desire, the Serpent tells her that compared with God she and Adam are bereft. They do not know what God knows, they lack the knowledge that would make them like God, a knowledge that carries power as well as freedom – a freedom that God jealously guards.
Thus tempted, Eve eats the fruit, so that she can “be like God”, and know and experience as much as God. And when she has tasted the fruit she goes to Adam to tell him. And hearing her story, Adam also eats.
The story not only makes a profound comment about human nature, it also reminds us of our essential incompleteness, and how our incompleteness, our finiteness, gives rise to all the anxieties that motivate and sustain action. When God comes to question Adam as to why he has eaten of the fruit when he was explicitly told not to do so, Adam’s desire (or objective) is to escape blame, and his way of doing this – his plan of action – is to blame Eve. Surely this must be the earliest narrative account of the use of method to achieve one’s goal. If it is not his fault then surely he cannot be held responsible for what he has done. Eve. Eve told him to do it. But when God goes to Eve to inquire as to why she has eaten the fruit, despite his instructions not to, Eve also has a plan to escape blame, She blames the Serpent.
Here, in essence, is the fundamental drama of human life. Problem, Plan, Goal. And the stakes are huge. In a bid for freedom, Eve transgresses the commandment of the power from which she has drawn her life and freedom, and yet somehow it is not enough to simply be, to have one’s life in Garden of Eden. What is freedom, after all, unless one has the freedom to choose not to be free? Even choice is an incompatible addition to reality insofar that her disobedience whilst serving to validate the freedom to choose what she wants, negates the freedom she already has. The incompatible addition to reality heralds a situation of irony, which becomes the situation into which they – and their offspring – are eternally condemned in the land east of Eden.
Stories that command our attention and provoke powerful emotional responses are invariably stories that dramatise situations of irony. A survey of any number of dramatic stories throughout human history supports this. Consider the tragedy of the self-appointed detective, Oedipus Rex, who sets out to rescue the city of Thebes a second time by tracking down the murderer of its former king, little knowing that he is murderer, as well as the former king’s son. Or the metaphysical ironies of a place called Chinatown in the film of the same name, where nothing is quite as it seems, and whose dark magic subtly employs goodness in the service of evil.
Dramatic characters act in response to what they don’t have, and often based on incomplete information. Motivated by needs and fears, by wounds that have fragmented or undermined their view of themselves and their relationship with others, dramatic characters strive to re-connect, to bring about a healing, a wholeness that has been lost in the act of living, loving, becoming.
Given the nature of drama, the only characters that lend potency to dramatic action are imperfect characters. The quest of drama is a quest of imperfect characters for some semblance of perfection, or the approximation of some degree of wholeness. The imperfect character is a flawed character, a character that has a credible journey to make owing to an essential lack of something that he/she cares about, whether it be a child stolen by Indians (The Searchers), or a family murdered by the Nazis (The Pawnbroker), or the murder of one’s father (True Grit), or even something as unlikely the quest of “the Dude” to replace a rug “that holds the room together” (The Big Lebowski). Something is missing, or has been lost, or has been taken away, and restitution is required lest the entire world goes pear-shaped.
Imperfect characters are essential to the creation of powerful, emotional scenes and stories. But the imperfection of which I speak has nothing to do with their being superficial or one-dimensional, quite the contrary. The imperfect character is present and known to us by virtue of an essential completeness that includes what-is-becoming-present, not yet. In other words, no character is fully realised until we are able to imaginatively grasp what is unrealised in them. This cannot – for either the writer or the audience - be negotiated solely in terms of the intellect; It is contextual and sub-textual, and is - most profoundly - grasped emotionally, as one enters into those “spaces” that film can neither show nor tell but only suggest. The incompleteness of the characters meets our incompleteness and together – in our relationship with them, something more complete emerges. Their contradictions call out to our contradictions; their imperfections resonate with our own. Together, creatively, we strive to realise a truth that is framed in a story and conveyed by actions funded by the emotional energies that are present. It the exchange we are called upon to enlarge whatever judgements we are inclined to make about who and what they are or might be, as well as who and what we might be.
The writer’s knowledge of the imperfect character cannot inhabit or occupy every facet of the character’s being and becoming. An imperfect character is capable of acting in ways that are totally unexpected and thoroughly surprising to the writer, the audience and the tribe. The imperfect character brings the experience of discovery to the reading and/or viewing of story. It is their imperfections that rescue them from cliché and stereotype, imperfections that form and sustain a freshness that conjures its own, individual order of emotional meaning, an order that we discover and contribute to as we are initiated into the dynamic integrity of each character’s contradictions.
Alas, not all films are driven by the actions of imperfect characters, only the dramatic ones, and then only the ones that eschew formula or find ways of employing it in unexpected ways. The perfectly drawn character, which frequents so many mediocre films, is perfect only in their predictability. They are invariably “just like us”, passive, malleable, and frequently stale to a fault.
Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, which has been adapted several times to the screen, provides an excellent example of two characters, whose inner contradictions are the source of all the drama and emotional power in the story. The scene is a railway cafe in Spain. Two characters, an older man and a young woman, are waiting for the train to Madrid. Without ever telling us what they are talking about Hemingway manages to create an intense power struggle, not so much out of what is said and one but by what is not said and not done. We take up their exchange halfway into the story.
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterwards?’
‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’
‘I know we will. Yon don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.’
‘So have I,’ said the girl. ‘And afterwards they were all so happy.’
‘Well,’ the man said, ‘if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘And you really want to?’
‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘I love you now. You know I love you.’
‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’
‘I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.’
‘If I do it you won’t ever worry?’
‘I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t care about me.’
‘Well, I care about you.’
‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.’
‘I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.’
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said we could have everything.’
‘We can have everything.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can have the whole world.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can go everywhere.’
‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’
‘But they haven’t taken it away.’
‘We’ll wait and see.’
‘Come on back in the shade,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t feel that way.’
‘I don’t feel any way,’ the girl said. ‘I just know things.’
‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -’
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
‘You’ve got to realize,’ he said, ‘ that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.’
‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’
‘Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.’
‘Would you do something for me now?’
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
‘But I don’t want you to,’ he said, ‘I don’t care anything about it.’
‘I’ll scream,’ the girl siad.
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. ‘The train comes in five minutes,’ she said.
‘What did she say?’ asked the girl.
‘That the train is coming in five minutes.’
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
‘I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,’ the man said. She smiled at him.
‘All right. Then come back and we’ll finish the beer.’
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
What is dramatic here resides entirely in the story’s subtext and the context in which it occurs. Each character harbours important, incompatible needs, and both characters are aware that there are aspects of their personal agendas that are totally incompatible with the agenda of the other. The underlying incompatibilities are enough - were the characters to insist upon them, and ignore the desires of the other – to wreck the relationship, a outcome that neither one wants. Even so, by the end of the story – again sub-textually – there is more than a hunt that the relationship is already over, or that it is headed that way at least. Neither character is capable of saying what they mean – or even saying what they want - because of their imperfections. And the basis of their imperfections is grounded in the incompatible additions they have made to their own sense of reality; a reality that is merely a bundle of false concepts which they embrace in the name of love, freedom, faithfulness, and generosity to name but a few. In their haste to free themselves and each other of their anxieties, they fail to grasp the nature of the underlying incompatibility of their feelings. No matter how much or how greatly they desire; the fundamental incompatibility of their personal desires and the ways in which these conflict with the desires of the other creates a situation in which one desire is continually cancelling out another. One might just as And so they are trapped by their imperfections, by the imperfections of human nature itself, whether they like it or not. And yet, at the same time, both go on blindly striving to achieve their imperfect goals with imperfect actions and words.
The word persona means “mask”, and the persons of the drama (the dramatis personae) are masked beings. In the time of Sophocles, the use of masks was a literal embodiment of the personality of the character. In contemporary film drama and indeed for as long as film story telling has been going on, the mask takes on many forms and meanings, from literal disguise to those psychological and mythical expressions of personality that we find in characters as diverse as John Foster Kane (in Citizen Kane) and Eve Harrington (in All About Eve). In the masks that a character wears or affects, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, political, mythical, cultural or societal, including class, the seeds of imperfection as well as emotional energy are sown. It is from these seeds that character-driven drama develops and grows. Indeed, it is the masks that make the imperfections possible, and it is a character’s imperfections that can rescue them from cliché, from stereotype. It is the characters’ imperfections in a character-based drama that are the source of its freshness: the unexpected shortcomings, the ironic selflessness that produces unexpected consequences, the unanticipated choice that forces the character – as well as the audience - to reassess what that character really wants and why they want it. Their imperfections are what make them both original and utterly familiar to us. In fact, their imperfections are the source of their dramatic potency. Without these – without the contradictions and incompatibilities – drama loses its ability to draw its audience into the emotional lives not only of the characters but of the story itself. Without contradiction there is no subtext, and without that there can be no creative participation by the audience in the lives and fortunes of the life that goes on in front of and behind the masks.
"The reader who is interested in liking characters is just not going to be my kind of a reader. If they can’t like a character because that character has a bunch of flaws or they’re doing something wrong, what does that say? Who are these people? Forget about characters in books. If I didn’t like humans in general, and I didn’t like them because they had flaws, or were in trouble, then I wouldn’t have any friends. Where are these mythically perfect people?"
(An Adapted Version of "The 12 Guideposts" from Michael Shurtleff’s book AUDITION)
Not dissimilar to the actor's quest to "build a character" is the screenwriter's quest to inhabit, and be inhabited by, those characters whose story is slowly coming to life in the evolving screenplay.
Fundamental to this task is the willingness to surrender all claims of preeminence and the writer's power to manipulate the characters in any way s/he pleases in order to serve his/her own needs as well as the needs of the plot as the writer alone conceives it. The chauvinism instanced by a writer whose insecurities preclude a living relationship with the characters, and the refusal of the writer to be open to the characters and enter into an authentic engagement with them is the secret vice of mediocre screenwriters. Indeed, the avoidance of emotional honesty (or emotional intelligence) is characterised by writing that is all too often stale, predictable, and action-less.
Part of the task of every screenwriter is to re-write him/herself as ruthlessly as he/she re-writes the characters in the script, which means transcending his/her own prejudices, assumptions and expectations - maladies that mask or dissipate the emotional energy implicit in the characters' problems, goals and actions.
In cultivating ever more intimate relationships with one's characters, one can usefully apply some guideposts. Here are 12 formulated by casting director, writer and teacher, Michael Shurtleff, and adapted so that they might better serve the needs of writers and dramatic filmmakers.
1. Relationship - based on NOWStart with the question: What is this character's relationship to the other character/s in the scene? Facts are never enough… once you understand "the fact" of the relationship, then you must explore the feelings the characters have for one another - Dig deep, deeper. Enter the realm of emotion. You need to ask feeling questions about each character's emotional attitude toward the other character/s. Do they love him/her? Do they hate him/her? Do they resent him/her? How much? Do they want to help him/her? Do they want to get in his/her way? What do they want from him/her? What do they want him/her to give you? These are the most important questions to ask. The answers to them will allow you - as the writer/character - to function emotionally within the scene. That is your goal.
2. Conflict: what is the character fighting for? Same as "beats" or motivation
a. What is the character fighting for - what "positive" is the character seeking?
b. What is the "negative" that the character is seeking?
c. What is the character DOING to get what he/she wants? Find as many ways as possible.
d. Who stands in the way, and why?
3. The Moment Before: each scene starts in the middle
a. What was the character doing - JUST BEFORE the scene? What and where are the origins of the actions and attitudes that are provoked or stimulated by the action of what is now occurring?
b. What does the character do - and what has the character done - that shows he/she is committed to his/her objective?
4. Humor/Hope: what is it that keeps the character from giving in to despair?
Humour is not jokes. Humour is not being Funny. Humour is what gets the character through the day.
a. What does the character find absurd about the other character or the situation?
b. Is there a moment where the character attempts to lighten the burden for him/herself or the other character?
5. Opposites: is the other end of the spectrum present?
Whatever you decide is your motivation in the scene, the opposite of that is also true and should be in it. Think about a human being, in all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exists creativity and an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exists sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill.
a. Where is the love? Where is the hate?
b. What extremes does the character feel about the other character?
6. Discoveries: things that happen for the first time. Surprise
Freshness and surprise relies on making discoveries and having realisations that one hasn't "cooked up". Authentic discovery occurs as one allows the character the freedom to be and become what they are. Avoid the routine, the humdrum. Eschew are formulae and stereotypes.
a. What makes this moment/scene different?
b. What does a character learn about him/herself in the scene?
c. What does the character learn about the other character/s?
d. What did the character learn about the situation, both now and before?
7. Communication and Competition: communication is a circle
a. Is the character sending out and getting back feelings?
b. Is the character "just talking at"?
c. Is the character open to hearing the other character/s?
d. What does the character DO to show he/she disagrees with the other character/s?
e. Where/when does the character show "I am right and you are wrong"?
f. How does the character say you should change from what you are to what I want you to be?
8. Importance: the truth is not enough if it is not dramatic, interesting, or unique
a. What is important to the character right at this moment?
b. Is that the same or different as a moment ago?
c. Is the character making the trivial important?
d. Is the character making the important trivial?
9. Find the Events: what happens in the Screenplay?
a. Is this a change?
b. Is this a confrontation?
c. Is this a turning point?
d. Could the character win or lose something right here and now? What's at stake?
10. Place: where is the character and what does he/she feel about it
a. Can he/she see it?
b. Can he/she feel it?
c. Can he/she smell it?
d. Is he/she comfortable with it?
e. Why is he/she here/there?
11. Game Playing and Role Playing: the "me" I am now
a. What role is the character playing?
b. What is the game the character is playing?
c. Who does the character need to be to win the game?
d. How far will the character go to win?
12. Mystery and Secret: what we don’t know
a. What can’t be explained?
b. What would the character never tell another?
c. To what lengths would the character go to keep it a secret?
d. Why might it hurt me - the character - if they found out?
Knowledge is often cited as the conventional remedy for prejudice and fear, but in the case of dramatic, screen storytelling, it will only take you so far. An intellectual grasp of plot construction and character development will neither inspire nor sustain the depth of insight or courage required for the task of finding and effectively exploring complex dramatic characters and character actions. Even when armed with the necessary jargon and possessed of an academic command of genre, structure and comparable methodologies one can do little to assuage whatever doubts and insecurities accompany the process of grappling with a character’s inner and outer problems and contradictions. Quite simply, knowledge very often only reinforces and legitimises the underlying anxieties that stand between us – the storytellers – and the story we are trying to find.
Much of our fear is stimulated by an unwillingness to confront or acknowledge the emotional messiness that unnecessarily accompanies every dramatic action. There is something inexplicably distasteful about dirtying one’s hands in the morass of anyone's hidden obsessions and desires, let alone our own. Such disgust is usually compounded by our studied ignorance of the characters’ origins or by a native lack of confidence when challenged to journey to the emotional source of the characters' actions.
If we surrender to our fears, instead of exploiting and directing them, and allow our confidence to be undone by bad faith or laziness, it is unlikely we will ever produce anything other than stereotypes that merely illustrate emotional energy rather than dramatize it.
But if fear and prejudice serve only to drive the anxious storyteller ever deeper into the complacency of formula, and if knowledge is of little or no use in combating these conditions, by what means might we fruitfully uncover the characters and actions that form the basis of energetic drama?
How does the screenwriter bring about or enter into that essential connectedness between him/herself and the characters that will invigorate the soul of the dramatic partnership?
If one’s goal is to become a medium for character, how is it possible to identify so strongly with our characters that we become the characters, or, more precisely, that the characters themselves “create” their own story?
Try as you will, it is almost impossible to force them out of hiding by merely assigning them biographies or moving them around the page whilst thinking up new ways of describing their appearance and what they are drinking or eating. The imposition of traits, attitudes and actions, short of our own, emotional involvement, breaks faith with the kind of relationship that allows a character to become a partner with the screenwriter/filmmaker in the creation of the story. Such a relationship is impossible so long as the storyteller maintains his or her narrow role as cold-blooded manipulator. What is required is some degree of openness accompanied by a willingness to trust the characters.
The storyteller/character relationship provides the usual vantage point from which dramatic screen stories are conceived and constructed, and owes almost everything to the storyteller’s continued and developing interest in each character's as-yet-undiscovered possibilities, which, if the character is dramatic, necessarily involves a high degree of curiosity on the part of the dramatist concerning the character's problems, goals and plans.
The initial stage of this engagement usually involves an informal “dialogue” between the storyteller and the characters in the script, in which the actions and motives of every character, as well as the storyteller, are interrogated and thoroughly scrutinized, both on and off the page.
During the re-writing phase – which is not unlike a kind of a prolonged and some times frustrating seduction – the screenwriter gradually develops a familiarity with the characters that permits a closer examination of the weight and rhythm of the emotional energies and transformations that are inherent in every character's actions. Even as one’s interest in the character grows, however, one is still only partially cognizant of the totality of the problems and circumstances with which the character is struggling. Because a great deal of our knowledge concerning the characters is based upon previously established sets of assumptions and prejudices that we have brought into the process in order to calm our doubts and sooth our insecurities concerning the story we think we want to tell, our knowledge ultimately proves an impediment to any genuine acts of discovery, either on the character's part or our own.
Too often, the storyteller/character relationship is grounded in the storyteller’s need for the character to comply with a set of presupposed prejudices and expectations, thus forcing the character and the story to move in a direction that has already been preordained. This is hardly conducive to promoting the kinds of interactions one normally associates with genuinely creative relationships. To avoid the staleness and predictability that this sort of non-relationship breeds, one must engage with one’s characters in ways that allow them to contribute something.
Whenever obstacles or complications intrude, threatening to block, frustrate or altogether stop a character in the realisation of some vital and urgent need, desire or objective, the screenwriter has an opportunity to observe and explore a variety of possibilities concerning the character's emotional and intellectual make-up, including their fears, ingenuity and other inner resources that may never rise to the level of consciousness were the character merely operating with the predictable and comfortable regularity of untroubled routine. As the characters navigate from one one crisis to the next, one begins to gain ever more intimate insights into their identity. The openness that results brings with it a growing sense of familiarity. As the character meet each test and manage or fail to manage the impediments and threats encountered, their actions and non-actions reveal possibilities as to their authentic nature. Central to this developing awareness is a growing sensitivity to what the characters are not expressing and why.
Also, as one becomes more open to the characters’ possibilities, one becomes increasingly inclined to jettison the old habits of thought that have bolstered and legitimized one’s ignorance at the expense of knowing one’s characters. As the need to manipulate and control your characters begins to be recognised for what it is – a strategy of avoidance, based on fear and prejudice – one is more likely to see and hear the characters in terms of themselves rather than as predictable functionaries of your own thinly disguised insecurities.
Dramatic stories that evolve from characters that insinuate themselves in this way create the impression – at least, within the screenwriter – that the story is writing itself. Indeed, from the point of view of the storyteller-as-medium, it is probably more accurate to describe the process as a finding rather than a making; and so long as the storyteller continues to be intrigued, the relationship will develop.
ADVERSITY BUILDS CHARACTER
In drama as in life, adversity builds character. When seriously threatened or in danger of losing what is most valued or prized, the dramatic character will act – must act – and through that action show us the stuff of which the character is made.
Whatever other tricks the storyteller may employ to entice, cajole or coax the character out of hiding, nothing is more revealing of a character’s innermost attitudes and motivations than what they actually do – and don’t do - in the face of life threatening circumstances. Hence, a character with his back to the wall will act in ways that reveal much more information about what he really thinks and believes and feels than a character that casually discusses the weather over an undramatic cup of tea.
One soon comes to realise that the screenwriter/character relationship also involves a process of self-interrogation in which the screenwriter must find, challenge, and sometimes transcend, those personal anxieties, beliefs and prejudices that serve only to obscure one’s relationship with the story and its characters.
In the quest to penetrate into a character’s emotional core, the screenwriter may open up old wounds, awaken childhood fears or resurrect old memories, any one or all of which may act as triggers to be tested, exploited, examined, employed or rejected in accordance with the emotional energies at work within one's characters and the story-being-found.
Fundamentally, the storyteller/character relationship begins where Drama begins – with a PROBLEM. In fact, the problem is the first, single most important dramatic artifact that the character and the storyteller have in common.
But a problem only becomes a dramatic problem – with an implicit dramatic question – when it goads a character into action: action that is directed towards achieving a desired objective or goal. This goal must, in turn, stimulate a plan of action that, when enacted, carries significant risk for the character.
A dramatic problem is the kind of problem that gets worse if it isn’t dealt with. It’s also the kind of problem that gets worse because it’s dealt with, and will go on producing even bigger problems – with ever increasing risk - as a result of the character’s actions to fix it. In this way a dramatic story goes on building tension and emotional energy until the characters (and the storyteller) are confronted by a problem of such profound magnitude that it appears unresolvable. This seemingly unresolvable problem is the brick wall at the heart of every dramatic story worth telling (See CONFRONTING THE WALL), and is the source of the terror that lies at the base of the storyteller/character relationship.
A writer who is brave enough to journey with the characters, and undergo the risk, urgency and anxieties that their problems visit upon them, might very well be thrown into temporary despair when faced with the seemingly solution-less riddle of the story’s last great obstacle; for unless a solution can be found the story cannot proceed, nor can it be finished. And not just any solution will do. Less imaginative writers, driven by despair and the whiff of ruin, will cast about, in search of an already-existing story or screenplay that contains a similar problem, and adapt it to their own needs. Unfortunately such a strategy undermines the essential freshness that characterises an enduring dramatic story, not to mention the fact that because it is an appropriation it will more than likely appear as a contrivance.
DRAMA, CHANGE & INGENUITY
Drama is concerned with the meaningful movement and transformation of emotional energy. This energy – as expressed in action – should appear coherent and necessary in terms of the character, the character’s given circumstances and the character’s back story. Everything has to fit, and must have its source in the life of the character, including the character’s origins. This is especially true of each character’s actions, which reflect their problems, plans and goals. Actions evoke changes and the transformations that occur will only command our attention if they are significant.
Change is made significant – or emotionally satisfying – when it is authentic, i.e.: when it is the expression of a character’s genuine emotional state. In order to transcend technique and method (formula) – and thus make one’s characters authentic – the storyteller must find ways of making the characters present.
In order to become present, a character must become more than an idea or even a collection of ideas or word/images that refer to that character. To become present means to inhabit the realm of the utterly original – which is to say, the character is possessed of a nature that is unique to that character, which flows from every action the character makes. a nature that allows that character to understand and be understood (susceptible to our empathy) in its own terms – including the terms of our world – without reference to characters extraneous to the story or any number of formulaic reductions (stereotypes) that serve only to rob it of its uniqueness.
A storyteller experiences a character coming to life when the character has been actualised in such a way that its attributes multiply their meanings by virtue of the internal and external relationships one ascertains in the act of witnessing the actions that are peculiar them. The addition of personal details does not guarantee this multiplication of meaning because only part of the life of a character actually exists on the page. A character’s most profound existence operates as a vital exchange between storyteller and character, mediated by text, context and subtext – but not limited to these. It involves not only those elements of character and story that are fully articulated and materialised, but also those aspects that are vividly implied by virtue of the imaginative associations inspired by what is stated and shown, as well as whatever is discovered as a result of the storyteller’s willingness to engage with character at a meta-linguistic level. This multiplication of meaning – which is really the essence of “modernism” – is elucidated more broadly in Eisenstein’s theory of montage and Ezra Pound’s ideogrammatic method, both of which, unfortunately, lie beyond the scope of this book.
According to legend, when Duke Ellington was asked to define jazz, he replied simply: “it’s what you leave out”. The same might be said of the very best dramatic screenplays if, that is, one “knows” what to leave out. One might even conceive of dramatic screen storytelling as the “art of the invisible, for so much of its meaning depends upon what is neither seen nor heard, but merely implied. Indeed, one frequently finds that it is the subtext of a dramatic story that lends it its potency.
The primary function of subtext is the multiplication of meaning, or emotional connectedness. Its presence and efficacy, while reliant on the story’s given circumstances and the dramatic action generated by character problems, goals and plans, actually transcend action, word, image and sound, and, in concert with innumerable, often unconscious, contexts alive within the storyteller, the audience and the tribe, promotes and invites insight by way of the imaginative leaps and seemingly personal, privileged observations it evokes.
The notion that the multiplication of meaning begins with the storyteller and what the storyteller is able to show or suggest is a vast delusion. The multiplication of meaning is not only a function of the storyteller’s involvement with the characters; it is also a manifestation of the characters’ facility to stimulate discovery in the storyteller, and more specifically, a manifestation of the characters’ willingness to be involved with the storyteller.
Stated in a different way – and borrowing a phrase from Pound – the multiplication of meaning is both the cause and the effect of the storyteller’s discovery and affirmation of those unexpected qualities that make a character and the character’s relationship with the storyteller NEW.
To make a character new, ingenuity is indispensable. Indeed, effectively written drama is the presentation of ingenuity in action, wedded to needs that are important to the characters: the thing we might have done if only we had thought of it! A character, and the situation into which that character’s actions propel it, might very well be dramatic, but this is no guarantee that the character won’t be dull. Drama alone is not enough. A compelling character will also be fresh, inventive, and at the same time, thoroughly credible.
One of the by-products of the unresolvable problem, creatively speaking, is the provocation of ingenuity from the writer/character relationship, and in so doing – so long as the writer does not lose heart – provokes the character into becoming more present. Interestingly, it also provokes, or at least encourages, the storyteller into become less present! Or, at least, the storyteller’s prejudices and fears. Because the unresolvable dramatic problem defies method and formula by presenting a dilemma for which neither method nor formula can provide any fresh and satisfying solutions, it ultimately forces the storyteller to abandon his/her reliance upon those sets of prejudices and fears that parade as knowledge, thus leading the storyteller to confront the character and the character’s problems in their own terms.
Whilst caught up in the chaos of the unresolvable problem, bereft of knowledge and the slightest hint as to what might be done, the storyteller arrives at his/her first best chance to make a clean break from the methodologies and formulas that stand between him/herself and the characters. When the storyteller’s ego-self backs down, when it finally admits it has no answers, that it is in fact the veritable fool at the heart of a foolish enterprise, when it becomes completely undone under the weight of not knowing, there is a chance, to hear the characters speak, and to find the solutions that only each character-as-that-character can find.
To fully appreciate the primary storyteller/character relationship is to understand that it involves not only the storyteller’s relationship with the main character, but with all of the characters. Indeed, to produce fresh, surprising and credible dramatic actions, the storyteller must have an energetic alliance not only with the main character, but also with those that stand in opposition to the main character’s plans and goals.
This shifting of allegiance – the storyteller-as-betrayer – is itself a dialogic that the storyteller navigates by translating into meaningful actions, the inner beliefs, attitudes and motives of all the characters. In short, the storyteller must care just as much about stifling or impeding the main character’s progress towards its goal as he/she does in seeking a successful outcome to the problems that the character encounters. This shift in loyalty is, in fact, a shift in point of view. One might ask: from what psychical position or distance is the storyteller viewing the actions of the characters? From whose point of view is the writer telling the story? The question goes to the core of every dramatic problem, for without an empathetic perspective, the writer will neither hear nor see the authentic character that is struggling to escape the prison of the storyteller’s prejudices and fears.
Successful screenwriters will never limit themselves to one point of view. Only by entering into a story through every character’s perspective and with every bit as much empathy as one has for the main character, can a storyteller find authentic characters that multiply the emotional meanings of the energies being built and released by their actions. The effectiveness of the storyteller/character relationship hinges upon this inclusiveness, for unless the relationship involves all of the characters that are relevant to the story’s telling, and only those that are relevant, Drama’s bastard brother, Melodrama, takes over.
So what is the essential nature of the storyteller/character relationship? It is much more complex and subtle than any résumé of the writer’s biographical details or the character’s circumstances might imply. The relationship is both implicit and explicit.
Implicitly, the relationship is based on inquiry. A storyteller, searching to find surprising and credible solutions to the problems faced by his/her characters, probes the characters’ given circumstances and the possibilities and potentialities relevant to those circumstances. Individual attributes, aptitudes, motives, values, fears, and idiosyncrasies, expressed in actions, are uncovered, explored and tested against other actions, which promotes the possibility of fresh insights and unexpected traits that, in turn, are also tested, incorporated or dismissed. Superficially, the aim of such inquiry is to identify possible solutions to the problems that confront the characters AND the storyteller, but more profoundly it creates the conditions that make it more likely that the storyteller will intersect with the characters, experiencing – emotionally - the same anxieties that the characters themselves experience in their pursuit of answers to the problems that threaten not only their well-being but the well-being of the storyteller. Through this quest and the anxieties it gives rise to, the storyteller develops an increasingly intimate sense of the characters’ inner life, which gradually creates a pivot point.
It is at this pivot – where the storyteller’s and the character’s anxieties and understanding of one another reach critical mass – that the storyteller/character relationship becomes explicit, where the flow of energy between the characters and the storyteller undergoes a radical shift. Where once the energy flowed from the storyteller to the characters, it now begins to flow more fluently and vividly from the characters to the storyteller. Almost as if by some alchemical action, the characters begin taking charge.
Ironically, the ultimate expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship is the obliteration of the dichotomy of storyteller and character, which is fundamental to the storyteller’s transformation into a medium. In other words, the storyteller stands aside, letting the character be what the character is, without the mediating filter provided by the storyteller’s cerebral cortex. In short, the screenwriter frees the character and the drama, which is the active, visual and oral expression of the character’s dramatic identity.
In this sense, the most eloquent task facing any dramatic screenwriter is simply to get out of the way. Once the character is in the driver’s seat, and the storyteller made into the vehicle by which the character transports his or her story from the scriptwriter’s subconscious onto the page or screen, the story begins to take on the quality of something that is telling itself. This is the finest and most complete expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship, and is the key to building the energy that will effectively drive the dramatic story – or any series of inter-related dramatic actions (the so-called “story arc”) – in a manner that is both fresh and surprising as well as being utterly coherent and thoroughly credible. It results in the storyteller and the character becoming active partners in a story that is happening both inside and outside the script.
The storyteller/character relationship is one of four primary relationships of character-based mediumistic screenwriting.– the primordial building block upon which every successful dramatic story is constructed – for it is through this relationship, from this relationship, and into this relationship, that every particular action, image and/or sound, implicit or explicit to the story-being-found, rushes towards or away from meaning and relevance.
"You can spot a bad character when there’s not too much more to them than what they’re wearing. There has to be something more than costume design and art direction. A dramatic character, by definition, is a character by virtue of the fact that they are fighting for something, something or someone that they care about, and whose struggle compels us to care, whether they are naked or not."
- Billy Marshall Stoneking
“Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.
"Any time any character is saying to another “as you know”, that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.
"Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in Bel Air and hire someone to live there for you."- David Mamet