Thursday, September 20, 2007

[Process] - Character

For the last two and a half years, I've kept notes about what I learned while writing the Limit. Now I'm creating posts that will cover each phase of my script-writing process. They'll be added to as I trawl through the blog (and linked to on the sidebar).

This one's about how I create characters. What you're about to read are snippets I've cut-n-pasted from previous posts.


To me, 3D means a character feels ‘real’. Achieving that means writing someone whose actions are ‘plausible’ and who audiences find ‘fascinating’. I can think of at least 7 qualities that you need to consider.

Uniqueness. Back story. Subtext. Attitude. Motivation. Sex Appeal. Humour.

1) Uniqueness. Is this someone we’ve never seen before?

2) Back story. Lots of juicy secrets, hidden agendas and a colourful past, all just waiting to be revealed in the current plot. My (borrowed) rule of thumb: ‘Never devise a new character or piece of the setting without coming up with a secret about them.’

3) Subtext. In this case, subtext means having them involved in two storylines; the pressure of one storyline informing the other. But it could also mean that the character has a secret we know about but the other members of the cast don’t.

4) Attitude. Make sure they differentiated from the other members of the cast in the way they approach conflict and think about life. See any Joss Whedon series for examples of this, but especially Buffy from Season 1 to 5, watching how each new recurring character is introduced.

5) Sex Appeal – what type of sexy are they?

6) Humour - what type of funny are they?

Last and most important:

7) Motivation. It needs to be consistent from week to week as well as within episodes. Everwood provides a good example. However, motivation is a defining characteristic of 3D characters. The things they want are what we find gripping to watch. So motivations need to be plausible (consistent with what we know about the characters and what the writers know about their backstories), fascinating and unique.


Just thinking about a couple of examples of where backstory has been used to really good effect.

There’s the graphic novel, Preacher – where many of its more powerful story-arcs rely on things that happened to the characters over 20 years ago (and I feel like author Garth Ennis had this all planned out before he began writing). Halfway through Season 2 of Buffy there’s a revelation about Angel that not only explains his withdrawn mopiness but turns him into a character worthy of a spin-off series. And – although I haven’t watched much of it yet – backstory seems to be a defining feature of Lost; so much so that I wonder what they’re going to do with their format in Season 2 once they’ve played out most of the secrets about the characters’ pasts.


Joss Whedon likes to create backstories for characters that contradict how they currently appear.

Examples. Giles the librarian used to be a drug-taking upper-crust British wild child. In Firefly, Shepherd Book the mild mannered preacher is probably a recovering Bad Lieutenant type of ex-cop* and hired killer Jayne has a mother who likes to knit for him.

The point: if you want to dimensionalise a character, you can use their backstory to create dualities.

Why would you do that? Well, you’re creating story material to reveal and play with in later seasons if you want. One use for it is to easily change existing relationships between characters. That lets you introduce new tensions if you’ve played out tensions that originally drove the show.

* If anyone wants the evidence supporting that theory, I’ll be glad to expand.


"I like to fall in love with my characters," says Joss Whedon in this interview and the commentary track to "A Hole in the World" (Angel, Season 5).

He also talks about his desire to punish characters - what I call 'finding their vulnerabilities'. The theory is that characters who are in control of their lives are boring; you only get to find out what's interesting about them when you destabilise either them, their lives or something they care about.


Among many other things, we talked about a beloved old game he'd GMed; particularly, we talked about how rich and alive its setting was, how detailed. His players ate it up, he said, they'd go on and on about how compelling, complete, fully realized the setting was.

Then he told me how he'd done it. He'd taken three principles - I wish I could remember them in particular, J please step in here, but they were like "nobody thinks that they themselves are evil," "the Grand Galactic Empire is procedurally conservative," and "nobody really enjoys their job" - three principles something like those, and whenever any of his players asked him about anything in the setting, he'd simply apply those principles to create the answer.

"I duck into a broom closet." "Okay. There are a bunch of reg-77f portbrushes in there, but someone hasn't bothered to replace them yet, they're all slimy and they smell." All the details you'd need to bring the setting home, give it weight and momentum, and yet J didn't precreate the contents of a single broom closet.

There's lots more in the Comments section, but the basic idea I'd rip from this is to define characters via a series basic principles which you can communicate to your writers. For instance, Xander off Buffy would be ... let's say the one who makes pop culture jokes, the heart of the group and the one who no-one listens to but who always knows what's really going on.


The fundamental problem seems to be
"Who is Taine?". In other words, that I don't clearly understand one of the main characters. That's a problem because he is a character everyone else is willing to go to extremes for.

The big lesson: don't write the first draft till I get all the main characters:

-- historically
-- psychologically
-- emotionally
-- dramatically
-- as characters I'm dying want to write

The small lesson: each character should have a separate folder for the notes about them.


Sympathy for Taine. That’s what I feel now, which is a first.

By understanding his place in the family & why his life is so shitty, I’m that much closer to being able to pile pressure on him. Just like with all the other characters in the script, I want to try and make him crack.


We had another brainstorming session last night in which - due to lack of sleep - I was Mr. Grumpy. However, we roughed out another good idea for a TV series and in the process I thought of several things it'd be worth brainstorming when you are designing characters.

Career, Character Traits and Secrets.
Trajectory (or Destiny). Chris suggested this; it's where a character appears they're going to end up, at the start of a show.

Then I think you should brainstorm 20 Facts everyone's sure of about the character, 20 Ideas or wild possibilities for them, and 20 Questions that nobody's sure of the answer to about the character.

After that brainstorming, choose the issues that seem most fundamental and go through brainstorm possibilities and solutions to those.

The point is: You don't want to settle for the easy option. You have to go deep so that you're convinced by the answers.


How do characters change?

Okay, the obvious: characters change as a result of things happening to them.

The not-obvious (and bear with me, I'm still working this out ...)

I've talked before about my new approach of not pre-planning plot twists or cool things that could happen in a story. The idea is to just start with an opening situation (a What-If), introduce characters as needed and then see what they do.

"Seeing what they do," involves brainstorming possibility after possibility until I come up with something surprising, satisfying and that forces other characters to react. After getting the answer to "What would this character do?" I propose you ask "Why did they do that?" either straight away or in an extensive post-draft analysis.

The point: deepen your understanding of the character at every point.

Now here's where the character change kicks in (and this especially applies to a TV series):

... When you've gotten to the point where you know what your characters will do (their actions are consistent, even predictable), when you understand the limits they're bound within, when they're no longer surprising you with their decisions, then it's time to consider changing a character's Situation.

To take an example and reverse-engineer it, let's look at Buffy:

** Massive Spoilers **

Start of Season 1: Buffy's job is to slay vampires. She doesn't enjoy it.
S1, Ep 7: Her boyfriend is a vampire.
S1, Finale: She dies, kills the Master and saves the world.

Start of S2: Buffy is emotionally disconnected from the world and cynical, as a result of killing the Master.
S2, Ep 13: Her boyfriend becomes an evil vampire.
S2, Finale: Buffy kills her boyfriend, quits & runs away.

I could go on (Faith, graduating from high school, what happens to Joyce) but hopefully you begin to see my point - whenever we're just getting a handle on Buffy and the show, Whedon and his team change something fundamental, something that strikes at Buffy's core.

Whedon likes to think of it as being cruel to his characters. My approach is to think of something that puts your characters off-balance, because when their lives are out of control then they start making interesting (and possibly bad) decisions.


I think I’ve already suggested that characters have Wants. Central objectives that define the reason they’re on the show. Watching Veronica Mars, I’ve become aware that the more Wants a character has, the more dimensions they have – because those Wants can be placed in opposition with each other.

For example, Veronica wants to be accepted, defend her dad, and find out who killed Lily Kane. What if two of those things turn out to be incompatible?


The next step up from understanding a character is to understand the relationship between a pair of characters. I’m just starting to think about the sort of questions I should ask in order to explore how a particular relationship works. Questions like:

Who has the power? Who’s dominant? Is there an official hierarchy? How do they make decisions?

Do they have a secret that they both keep (together)? What secrets do they keep from each other?

How’d they first meet?


I’m also getting to better understand the nuances of each character’s motivations. Watching Buffy Season 4 taught me that you really only need to know what characters have just been through and how that makes them feel RIGHT NOW in order to be consistent. Let’s call it the ‘stay one step ahead’ mode of writing.


I really like this quote from Sid Field's Going to the Movies. It's Robert Towne (Chinatown) about creating characters. He first asks himself, What is this character afraid of? In other words, what is his or her deepest fear?

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes, a private detective specialising in "discreet investigation," has a certain reputation to uphold, so he does everything to make a good impression. He dresses immaculately, has his shoes shined everyday and has his own code of ethics. Gittes' deepest fear is not being taken seriously.


I’ve also been consulting on a small town drama-comedy TV series set in NZ (which means all my close watching of the Gilmore Girls is finally paying off). Contributing to this project has made me aware that I’ve taken something from Universalis – I’m becoming extremely focused on consistent characterisation and making the plot flow out of the ramifications of that.


Knowing a character's background helps you figure out their voice.

That's because the way a person speaks reflects their interests. The metaphors they use, the subjects they talk about, and the grammatical structure of how they talk about them.

Examples ... A journalist who asks incisive questions, likes finding out facts, and enjoys talking about current events. A computer programmer whose sentences are logical and precise. In real-life, I've recently noticed how much I use television shows and script-writing techniques in conversation. I compared a job situation to working on a 'West Wing' election campaign; if I want to know about someone's past, I ask "What's their backstory?" Frankly, it's begun to irritate me.

Conclusion: if a person's focused (or obsessive) about what they're interested in, their speech becomes more one-dimensional. Which is great, because it makes them easier to characterise, ... and not so good if you're a real person.

What else affects speech patterns? Class, education, temperament, ethnicity, friends. There's a whole bunch of continuums that are useful to think about - does this person have high or low self-esteem? How certain or ambivalent are they? Where do they fit on continuums like:

- caring/selfish
- honest/deceitful
- ambitious/contented
- direct/passive-aggressive
- clear thinking/fuzzy thinking
- practical/dreamer?

When two people meet, they also talk about the things they have in common - which can be their social group or it can be shared interests. And what they talk about can be the thing they care most about at that moment. That's possibly not so useful for creating conflict in a scene, but it gives me two good questions for figuring out a scene's starting point, to create a sense of reality.

What do these people have in common?
What do they care about most, right now?


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