Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch
L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff
The hard stuff
L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory
L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Conan the Barbarian–From a Writer’s Perspective

I must admit I was a bit scared to view this movie after approximately 27 years. When it was popular in the 80s, I must have watched it a thousand times because I was super into anything Dungeons & Dragons like, and I never missed a showing of it on TV (and I swear it was on every Saturday afternoon). The reason I was so scared was because I had recently watched Red Sonja on Netflix, another Dino de Laurentiis film from the era that I had once loved, and it was so horrible I was embarrassed for myself for once liking it.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with Conan, and it is still a movie that can live up to today’s standards (mostly). In fact, as far as storytelling goes, it far surpasses a lot of the crap movies that are out there now.

First, Conan the Barbarian (oh, did I mention this is the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) is an epic tale and embodies most of the conventions we assimilate with epic literature: it’s written in a formal style on a serious subject whose main character or protagonist is of a quasi-divine nature. The hero’s actions often determine the fate of a nation and involve super-human deeds and battles with supernatural beings. There is also an element of ceremony or ritual, and a vast setting that encompasses lots of travel.

Aside from just being a great story all around, Conan is a master of showing character through action. By this I don’t mean sword fights because, let’s face it, the fight choreography is a little lame by today standards. Rather, I mean we see the true nature of Conan through his actions and not through dialogue. He actually doesn’t speak much at all and has the least amount of dialogue of any of the characters. But we are still able to see his struggle with his internal need and his desire for the external goal by small actions.

A perfect example of this is when Valeria begs him to forget about saving King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom and take the jewels and love they have at the moment and run away. Without speaking, Conan embraces Valeria back in a sort-of agreement but stares at Thulsa Doom’s talisman over her shoulder, which represents his desire to avenge his family’s death. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone.

Any screenwriter of any genre would do well to study this movie for character’s actions/reactions as well as a lesson in using dialogue sparingly to convey only the most important information.

Truly, this is an epic movie.

Pre Frenzy Week 3- We Got the Beat

By now you’ve done some work on your characters and found out what makes them tick. Hopefully you’ve discovered their major character flaw through listening to their back story. You’ve figured out what it is they need most in life even if they haven’t figured it out yet. You’ve also come up with a situation, a quest so to speak, to help them get what they want. After all, that’s what storytelling is all about–creating a situation that forces your protagonist to get over himself and live a better life. (Yes, even in tragedy and death the protagonist grows.)

Last week’s exercise was a sort of fill in the blanks of the ten elements of screenwriting. Here’s an example of what yours might look like:

1. Back Story— Rumer’s father, an assassin for SI:7, is accused of treason against the King of Stormwind and executed in front of her and her sister, Whisperra. While trying to help Rumer escape their father’s murderers, Whisperra is kidnapped, and Rumer is left to fend for herself. Growing up alone and despised for her family name, Rumer takes to drinking and refuses to form close relationships with anyone except her giant saber mount and companion. She travels Azeroth searching for her sister.

2. Internal Need–to trust and open herself up to others without fear of abandonment; to allow others to help her.

3. Inciting Incident–While chasing yet another lead on her sister’s whereabouts, she learns her father’s charge of treason could have been part of a larger conspiracy against the entire Stormwind Alliance.

4. External Goal–to stop the murder of King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind.

5. Preparation–She infiltrates SI:7 to confront Master Mathias Shaw, who supposedly ordered her father’s execution. She gathers a group of would-be heroes, a healer, a hunter, a magic user, and a warrior, to raid the conspirators’ stronghold and rescue her sister. She devises a strategy for stopping the assassination attempt on King Wrynn.

6.Opposition–Death Knight Malthrassus, advisor to the king and head of covert operation within the Empire to destroy the Alliance. (By the way, it’s important to do just as much character work on your antagonist as well to discover his/her character flaw, internal need, and external goal. You might want to look for something in his/her back story to create sympathy. Antagonists need not be wholly evil, just as protagonists should not be perfect.)

7. Self-Revelation–After rescuing her sister, Rumer knows that together they can clear their father’s name and stop Malthrassus from destroying the Empire.

8. Obsession–Dark Moment: Whisperra is mortally wounded during the escape, and Rumer is left alone once again. New Stimulus: She will avenge her sister’s death by asking her companions for help.

9. Battle–While her friends and SI:7 armies come to her aid, ultimately she must fight Malthrassus alone before he assassinates King Wrynn.

10. Resolution–Rumer and her merry band of heroes are honored by the King of Stormwind. Whisperra’s life is commemorated in a statue. Their father’s name is cleared. The leader of SI:7 offers her a position as his second-in-command.

…or some reasonable facsimile.

So while you were exploring the elements as they pertain to your own story, you probably started getting ideas for scenes. Great! Now it’s time to connect the dots and really begin to plot out your script by creating a beat sheet or step outline.

Sometimes you’ll see the word “beat” written within a script. This generally indicates a moment of pause for dramatic effect before a reaction or response. As writers, we don’t want to dictate every action a character will make–that’s the actor’s job–but there may be a specific place where we want to make sure the change of action/reaction isn’t missed.

A beat is also an exchange of behavior in action or reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene. This will be discussed more next week when we work on subtext, but for now think of beat as the motivations behind each character’s actions or dialogue: to beg, to condone, to scorn, etc.

For our purposes this week, a beat sheet (it’s very hard not to write beet sheet or beat sheat) is a one or two-sentence statement that simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene. It can also be called a step-outline in which you number each scene, describing not only what happens in it, but how it builds and then turns again. Remember, each scene should attempt to answer a question as well as pose a new one. In this sense, you can also think of each scene as its own little cliffhanger because what happens in one scene should naturally move the story forward to the next one.

As we begin to plot out our story based on the revelations we’ve made on our characters, their actions and reactions, we also begin to think about structure. The most common structure you’ll probably be working in is the three-act structure. And once you grasp the inner-workings of each act, it becomes much easier to plan scenes.

Here’s a brief overview of each act.

Act One: We meet the major (and some of the not so major) characters in the story, particularly the protagonist. In a few brief scenes, we establish the opening value of the story (positive or negative or somewhere in between), the status quo of the protagonist’s life up to this point, perhaps a glimpse at his or her internal need, and a bit of back story. There may also be the beginnings of a subplot or two. But the biggest thing that happens in Act One is the Inciting Incident–something must happen to upset the status quo. It may also upset the protagonist because, remember, he has a character flaw that is trying to prevent him from acting. (Think about what he fears most.) Next, we introduce some kind of external goal that the protagonist thinks will solve the problem presented by the inciting incident and make everything better. This comes directly out of your premise statement. And to end the first act, we must see the protagonist taking the initial action to achieve that goal. This can be called a plot point, turning point, or first major reversal. The opening value has just changed in a big way.

Act Two: This is the bulk of your story and is all about creating conflicts, barriers, and antagonism. Create progressive complications by gradually raising the stakes. How far is your protagonist willing to go to achieve this goal? With each action and each reaction to these complications, she will pass the point of no return and a new level of conflict is aroused. This is also where we see our character preparing herself and devising strategies to overcome each new obstacle. We meet the antagonist full-force. We witness the strength and magnitude of all his resources and power so that it’s no wonder our protagonist fails. And finally, our main character must face her darkest moment. This is the moment when she becomes conscious of her internal need and despite losing everything, she has to continue toward that goal–even if it means death. Just as Act One ended with a plot point, so does Act Two. Our main character, now obsessed with achieving the external goal and the internal need, tries one more time. Think of what action, rather than dialogue, she will take.

Act Three: Short and sweet. We present our battle scene/climax/showdown/big finish. There is a moment of crisis in which the wrong decision at this time will lose the external goal for both the antagonist and the protagonist. There is no going back for either of them. There is no more planning. There is only doing. They square off. Who wins? Regardless of who does, our protagonist has to achieve his/her internal need. Anything left after the goal has been won is called the resolution. In a scene (or two at most) we can show the spread of climactic effects on other characters by bringing them all to one location like the beach or a party or a wedding. Now with everyone in one spot, we can wrap up any subplots, and we can provide a “slow curtain” for the audience to get their emotions under control. Didn’t you ever wonder why some people stay to watch the credits (myself included)?

Week 3 Exercise: Write a beat sheet/step-outline of your entire screenplay. Just one to two sentences will do, and it doesn’t matter where you start either. Sometimes it might be easier to start toward the climax and work your way backwards. Another idea is to write each scene on an index card then arrange them in an order that seems sensible and logical to you. If you’re a visual writer, and you probably are if you’re interested in screenwriting, it might be easier to visually see your story enfold before you as you shuffle cards into order. And don’t forget to include subplots as well as the main conflict.

And Out of Character Comes the Ten Elements of Screenwriting

There’s a big difference between character and characterization. Characterization is all the work we do trying to figure out who our characters are. Usually this consists of filling out profiles about personality, mannerisms, private thoughts, etc. Character, however, is created through action–what he or she does and says. Think about it, one of our characters might describe himself as having a good sense of humor; however, we see him getting defensive when his friend makes an innocent joke about his choice of clothes that day. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about creating complex characters–we all have contradictions in our personality–but we better make sure there’s a reason why at this particular moment he chooses to get upset at the comment. We also better make sure we see examples of his normal sense of humor.

Sometimes the best way to get to know our characters is not by creating tons of lists about physical and personality traits but by putting them into situations and see how they act. For instance, you might want to ask open-ended questions, such as if your character was in a house fire and could only rescue one member of her family, whom would she save and why? Or if your character was hurrying to the hospital to see his best friend before surgery and he witnesses a stranger attempting suicide, does he stop to help the stranger? Why or why not?

Once you start to get an idea of who your characters really are and how they respond to certain situations, you can begin to use this knowledge to plot out your story. Wait–I thought we were working on character this week, not plot? Well, we are, but everything that happens in your story, essentially happens because of your characters. This is where the Ten Elements of Screenwriting come in.

1. Back Story–this is everything that happens to your character before the story begins. Basically, this is how your character has evolved into the person he or she is today. Usually, there is some meaningful event or events that shape your character’s life and personality. Sometimes the antagonist may have even played a part in your protagonist’s past. Whatever your character’s back story is it gives us insight into her motives, actions, and responses in the present story.

2. Internal Need–your character needs to acquire a personal attribute to be truly happy with themselves and their life. They might not know what it is on a conscious level, but you should. Think about things involving the self-image like courage, compassion, forgiveness, self-reliance, ability to love. Often the Internal Need is related to or is responsible for their biggest character flaw. You would not say your character needs $1 million dollars to be truly be happy, but she could very well need the sense of security that money represents to her. This may in fact be the reason why she is also misrepresented as being greedy. There will always be something in your character’s back story to support this flaw.

3. Inciting Incident–Remember the house fire I mentioned earlier? This could very well be an inciting incident. As is anything that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, or a choice to make. It upsets the balance and the status quo of the character’s life, and it begins the action of the story. Inciting incidents come in three types: ACTION–a swimmer is killed by a shark (Jaws), A PIECE OF INFORMATION–the Nazis are about to discover the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or even by another character called a CATALYST–Ilsa asks Rick for Letters of Transit to enable her husband’s escape from the Nazis (Casablanca).

4. External Goal–Ah, this is what your protagonist thinks will make her happy–$1 million perhaps? It’s also an action or an object that the main character thinks will solve the problem presented by the Inciting Incident. It could be something like finding that special love, rescuing someone from danger, saving the world from zombies, Nazis, or aliens. It could even be something like finding the Fountain of Youth or the Meaning of Life. Whatever it is, it requires three things to function: STAKES–if the goal isn’t met, something great will be lost (the fate of the world anybody?), OPPOSITION–there has to be someone else intent on making sure the main character doesn’t achieve it, and DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY–the goal must be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the protagonist changes while trying to reach it.

5. Preparation–now that your protagonist has decided to go after something, he has to devise a plan or strategy on how to do it. He has to gather resources, equipment, and allies. If your main character is the Karate Kid, you would probably have to enlist the help of someone who can train him in martial arts. He’d also have to develop strength and skill not just in body but in mind as well. How he goes about this is the preparation you must come up with as the screenwriter. But you can’t make it too easy for him either. You have to create obstacles or barriers that block your character’s journey, thus allowing him to change and grow as a person. And the stronger he gets, the greater your obstacles have to become. Make your protagonist work for it!

6. Opposition–this is another fancy word for any outside force trying to prevent the main character from reaching his goal. We most often see the opposition being represented by another character called an antagonist, but this isn’t always the case. It could be a vast ocean, a force of nature, or an element of weather. If your opposition is another character, he or she needs to either have the same goal as the protagonist or one that is mutually exclusive. He or she must also have unlimited resources and be more powerful than the main character. Sorry, but even with all the preparation and strategy, the protagonist must fail.

7. Self-Revelation–this is what happens when the main character has essentially failed at all attempts of achieving her internal goal. She runs out of resources and allies, and she becomes conscious of her Internal Need. This is best represented by action rather than dialogue. No one wants to hear a character say, “I finally learned that what I really need is a sense of security, not a million dollars.” How do you know when your main character has reached self-revelation? When she tries one more time to solve the problem or overcome the challenge even in the face of failure and death. Two hours ago, she never would have done that. She would have continued to live unenlightened and remain in the status quo. (Does this sound like your life?) Think of Self-Revelation as coming in two parts: DARK MOMENT–this is the point of failure, and NEW STIMULUS–your character gets up and tries again.

8. Obsession–you may have heard this being referred to as the second plot point. Basically, your protagonist makes that crucial decision to try one last time. He focuses even more intently on the goal despite the stakes being at an all-time high. What does this say about his character? It should say something pretty special because there is nothing left to lose and yet, still, he continues. This is quite honestly the most important thing you can show about your main character. And again, it is shown through an action. It could be something as small as lifting his bloodied head off the ground or as big as getting down on one knee before an ex-lover to ask forgiveness one last time, but it shouldn’t be him saying, “I will live to fight another day.”

9. Battle–Well, what story would be complete without the ultimate showdown between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist? This time there is no compromise; it is a fight to the death, literally and figuratively. This is what the audience has invested all their emotions in, and they want to be satisfied. They want the main character to win, but even if he doesn’t, he has to achieve his Internal Need. He has to grow and change and know he has.

10. Resolution–you showed what your main character was like before she committed to solving some huge problem, before she realized what it is she truly needed to be happy, now you get to show us how she’s changed because she has it. Remember, your protagonist will never be the same person she was at the beginning of the story.

So there you have it. All the ten elements of screenwriting are intrinsically linked to character not characterization.

Exercise for the week: Fill in the details of each of the ten elements as it pertains to the “character” of your protagonist. Although you may not know what each and every obstacle will be, you should have some idea how your main character will respond to them. Try to make sure there is a pretty sizable difference between who your protagonist is at the beginning of the story and who she is at the end.

Bonus exercise: Your new protagonist encounters the old protagonist. How does he or she respond to his or her way of life, insecurities, thought-process, etc.

Pre ScriptFrenzy Frenzy

If you’ve ever tried to write a 90 page script or a 50,000 word novel from conception to completion in 30 days, you’re just as crazy as me. What I’ve found from multiple attempts is that it can’t be done. At least, not with anything worth a damn at the end of the month. I’ve read different blogs and posts by participants that all say the same thing: they went off on tangents just to hit the word count. They wrote characters who had no purpose, they wrote plots that led nowhere, and they often wrote a mess that was not even rewritable let alone revisable when they were done because they did not want to fail.

What is the purpose of this? Isn’t the point of writing to express yourself in some way? And hopefully to become published? Do we really have time to write a bunch of crap that is basically useless and would take way more effort to fix than to just spend quality time writing quality prose? Granted the allure of finishing a feature-length screenplay or a novel is enticing especially if, like me, it takes you years to complete one, but I find ScriptFrenzy and NaNoWriMo incredibly stressful. I blame that on poor planning. (Plus the fact that I always start late anyway.)

Last year, I tried to participate in ScriptFrenzy by writing a screenplay I had conceived of at age 11. The only problem was, I had tons of research to do for it because obviously it had changed in concept in some ways, and I labored over the opening scene for about three weeks until I decided that it just wasn’t gonna happen.  Had I taken the time to get all of my pre-writing done ahead of time, I might have had a better shot.

Likewise, I tried my hand at NaNoWriMo one year. I’m used to writing novels, so I didn’t think it would be that bad. And although I tend to write without a whole lot of focus, I do spend much of my time editing as I write, which does not work well with time constraints. It could take me an entire weekend to write one chapter of 7-10 pages. But it’s a damn good chapter.

So the advent of 2012’s ScriptFrenzy is almost upon us. (It starts on April 1st in case you’re wondering.) And I vow to complete a screenplay based on my WoW character’s secret life. (If you’re interested in what this entails, follow my blog at www.rumertales.wordpress.com) But in order to complete this insane quest, I’m going to spend the month of March doing all my pre-writing exercises. And I’m going to share them with you, so you too can succeed at ScriptFrenzy.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why should I take advice from this nobody? She can’t even finish a screenplay in 30 days?” Well, I’ll tell you. I am somewhat adept at the art of screenwriting. I’ve studied it at UCLA and I’ve taught Introduction to Screenwriting courses at Westfield State University. I even presented my Capstone seminar on screenwriting.

So there you have it. I’m an expert and you should listen to me.

For the next four weeks, I’ll be posting a series of exercises meant to focus your ideas into a cohesive and fluid storyline. You’ll learn how to write a premise and create a beat sheet, how to create characters and scenes, and how to structure your story using the ten elements of screenwriting.

And if you don’t want to listen to me, you should listen to this guy: Robert McKee, screenwriting guru and author of Story. http://www.mckeestore.com/Robert-McKees-book-STORY_p_11.html

I can’t promise anything, but if you join me, you might just finish that script after all!