A matter of character

Method improv taken a tad too far

Method improv taken a tad too far

When we create stories, we try to come up with truly amazing characters; characters that will resonate in our audience’s memory, long after they’ve finished with our story. Unfortunately, what usually happens is we end up with characters that flatten on the page, becoming two-dimensional versions of our goal. The character may flare momentarily when their plot becomes particularly exciting, but for the most part, they are lifeless and have no depth.

Like subtext in our dialogue, so much that makes a character real has nothing to do with what they are saying or doing. It’s the intangibles, the subtleties that inform their speech and actions.

Would Darth Vader, for example, have been nearly as imposing without the emphysema? What would you think of Forrest Gump without his omnipresent blankness?

Years ago, in an improv class, we did an exercise in character when the instructor told us to endow our character with some physical attribute, but not to share that attribute with others, whether verbally or by incorporating it into the scene. Let the attribute impact your character and see what happens was the request.

I decided that my character’s left foot caused him excruciating pain every time he took a step. As the scene unfolded and my character found it necessary to move, I found that my sentences grew shorter, more clipped, and my patience with people wore thin. Requests to come look at this or hand me that were met with general reluctance and irritation. Everything about my character screamed leave me alone.

I did not wince when I walked. I did not massage my foot while seated. I did my level best to give no outward sense of what was wrong.

When the instructor surveyed the other students, both within the scene and watching, about what our various attributes were, none of us really knew. All they could say was that my character was very angry and a bit of an asshole.

When told I had an extremely painful foot, it was obvious. And please realize, I am NOT an actor. This was not about my Oscar-worthy performance.

But it does show that by making a very small choice about a character, a choice that has nothing to do with plot, you can significantly inform that character and how he or she interacts with others and his or her environment.

When I worked on my first screenplay, I looked for something that affirmed how cool a customer my antagonist was. I wanted something subtle that would indicate he had the ultimate confidence in himself and his manifest destiny. Something that said I have all the time in the world because the world will wait for me.

It was my last point that settled it for me. My character would never use contractions in his speech. From his perspective, every word he uttered was important, was specifically chosen for maximum impact and so why would he remove any of the letters. And because his destiny was your destiny, you would sit patiently and absorb everything he had to say, no matter how long it took.

Now the average reader or movie goer may never consciously notice this, but for many, they’ll experience the malevolent calm of the character.

And perhaps more importantly, as with the sore foot in the previous example, the contraction-free speech informed how I wrote the character. It forced me to slow down as I wrote his dialogue, to consider each and every word he spoke, to ensure they fit the creature I had created. Ironically, that I the writer served him the way he would expect to be served.

Based on the reader feedback to date, it is working.

Look at the characters you’ve created and ask yourself what physical tic, affectation or neurosis informs their lives. If you can’t identify one, can you introduce one to increase the depth of the character or heighten his or her reactions?

Even if it only helps you to better understand and write your character, the exercise will have been worth it.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, because I didn’t eel like asking.)

Too cool for fish school

Too cool for fish school

Unpacking baggage – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed the idea that to understand any characters you create and to make them more alive to your audience, you need to understand their baggage, the emotional and psychological events of their past that informs/moulds their behaviours and responses today. Today, I want to talk about making sure you let your audience in on the cosmic joke.

A couple years ago, I wrote a pilot episode for a new sitcom that I was developing—and still am; oh producers, where are’t thou?—and I asked my long suffering wife to read the teleplay.

My concern, I explained, was that of the four main characters, I didn’t feel I had a handle on three. The protagonist I nailed—knew him inside and out—but the other three seemed a little superficial. I wanted a second opinion, though, in case I was just being hard on myself.

Upon reading the script, she asked me a question. [SIDEBAR: Keep all friends who ask questions before offering opinions.]

Which of the four characters did I think I was most like? The protagonist, hands down. She smiled.

Based on her single reading without any background information, she proceeded to describe the other three characters in the script. And nailed them! She matched almost perfectly what I had had in mind for them.

But as was her wont—never in a malicious way—she then burst my bubble by telling me that she had almost no clue as to who the protagonist was, other than he was very similar to me. Without the benefit of 10 years of marriage, the protagonist was a black box. A name followed by narrative action or dialogue.

We walked through scenes and I explained motivations. My explanations made sense to her, but they weren’t on the page. My protagonist was so close to me that it never occurred to me that things weren’t obvious.

More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading other people’s developing screenplays, and very often, one of the problems I find as a reader is that I don’t have a clear vision of a character’s motivations in a scene. Why did they do what they did, say what they said?

One fellow student in particular I pressed for explanations about some characters in her otherwise amazing script (which horrified the bejeezus out of me btw). She waxed eloquent on her characters’ motivations and histories, offering amazing little vignettes from their pasts that helped explain why her characters were now behaving as they were.

But it wasn’t on the page!

Before I go further, this is NOT a call for more flashbacks (or cowbells). I am addicted to flashbacks, so I understand their power. Please avoid unless it is really there to move your plot along and not just a underhanded form of exposition designed to keep you from having to learn how to write subtext.

My recommendation to my friend, and something I will do on occasion, is to actually write out those vignettes, full narrative and dialogue, but only for myself and not for inclusion with the screenplay. Don’t just think about them, though. Actively write them out. For it is the act of writing that you will find the emotion of the scene, and it is that emotion that will provide the subtext of your screenplay.

That emotion will inform your dialogue and narrative word choice. That emotion will mould the flow and cadence of your dialogue (e.g., short, terse response vs. raving diatribe). It will also help inform how other characters will respond.

As I have experienced, having this information in my head makes it an intellectual exercise, with all of the cold aloofness that goes with it. But putting it on paper forces you to acknowledge and release those demons. It activates your lizard brain, as another friend of mine liked to call it. It is more visceral, more real.

It also has the added benefit of giving you something back to which you can refer when working on the story after six months of doing something else.

When someone reads your work or an actor performs it, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to get your characters, to understand the turmoil in which your characters function. Except at the highest levels of your story, do not ask your audience to think. It takes them out of the story.

You want them to feel the anger; the amusement; the sadness. If your protagonist is being oppressed, you want your audience to feel angry at the mistreatment, frustrated by the inability to change what is happening, and vindicated/exhilarated when your protagonist triumphs.

They can think on the way home from the theatre or after they close the back cover of the book.

If it is not on the page, none of this will happen. You audience will not engage and your story will suffer.

Sure, it sounds like extra work—it is!—but you’ve already invested this much time and effort on your story. Do you really want to risk that being all for nought because you’re the only one who gets why this story is important?

Who is this man and what is he thinking? What is he waiting for? If he looked at me, would I see boredom, anger, fear, joy?


(Taken in Tofino, British Columbia.)

Unpacking baggage – Part One

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and realized that you’re not really arguing about the topic at hand? Reacted emotionally to an event or a person’s actions but not understood why?

We are the baggage we carry. We see everything in our universe through the lens adjustments of past events.

This can lead to problems—toothpaste in the sink upsets me not because there is toothpaste in the sink but because it is merely the latest in a string of actions that prove my feelings aren’t important to you—but it doesn’t have to. I can well up on the subway watching a young person being kind to a senior citizen. That ocular moisture isn’t about them; it’s about my life with my grandmother.

What’s true for you is also true for the characters you create. Long before they showed up on a page in your screenplay or novel, each of your characters led a life. And that life shapes—or should shape—every response and reaction your character has throughout the screenplay.

You’ll hear people—particularly actors—talk about back story. What is this character’s back story? But to me, baggage is a much more appropriate term because I think it speaks so much more to their motivations in life.

Stephanie and Margaret both come from middle-class white homes in the suburbs. They are the same age, are both actors, went to identical schools, have working dads, stay-at-home moms, and two younger siblings—one male, one female—in college. They have the same back story. What about baggage?

Stephanie’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything. And while they support her acting career, they really don’t get it. Her brother is studying medicine. Her sister, law. Stephanie was expected to lead by example.

Margaret’s family believe that if you can achieve, you can over-achieve. Success is everything, but it comes from within, not from without. They support her acting career, and even if some of them don’t get it, they’re happy for her. Her engineer brother and biochemist sister come to all of her shows.

In your screenplay, Stephanie and Margaret are on their way to an audition. Both carry coffees through a crowded Starbucks and spectacularly collide, coffees spewing everywhere. How will each react?

Baggage deepens a character. It makes them more real and more sympathetic to the reader or viewer. It subconsciously informs their decisions and their word choice, ideally without dialogue that is completely on the nose (e.g., “Agh, this is like that time in Kapuskasing with my dad!”).

Baggage is indispensable to subtext.

If your character is well-written, the audience should be able to identify his or her baggage and be pretty close to what you were thinking. Although, if they come up with something completely different, they may be pointing out something in you of which you were not aware, which can also be exciting.

As writers, we find it hard enough coming up with the events within our story. For some, the idea of coming up with events and interactions before our story may seem to be extraneous work for no benefit. Without baggage, though, you run the risk that all of your work will have been for nought.

And let’s face it. A story is a journey, and when have you ever gone on a journey without at least a little baggage?

Part Two: Knowing your character’s baggage isn’t enough, in and of itself. You also have to make sure you weave that baggage into the page.

The essentials of my baggage in Costa Rica.