Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Characters need a "Thing"

While reading Scriptshadow's review of 'Retreat', a Dead Calm-esque thriller on an isolated island, I came across a great little insight. (One of the great things about Scriptshadow's review format is the little insight at the end of each review; quite often there's something that sticks with me.)

Anyway, this idea is relevant to the work I want to do on Left Coast, making the supporting characters that surround the lead character as real and pro-active as possible.
[E]very character should have a “thing” going on.

Everybody’s got a “thing.” My friend Dan’s thing is that he’s obsessed with women, to the point where it’s ruined a marriage and a couple of other great relationships he’s had. My friend Claire’s thing is that she refuses to rely on other people for help. She has to do everything herself, even when at times it’s impossible.

Kate’s thing [in this script] is that she can’t forgive her husband for putting his work before her.

Think about all the friends in your life. You can probably break all of them down into having that one “thing” that identifies them. This “thing” is what you use your screenplay to explore. Sure this [script's] concept is about a deadly virus that could potentially end human existence. But really this script is about a woman trying to come to terms with what her husband did to her, forgive him, and move on.

OPost Optionsnce you identify what your main character’s “thing” is, you can use your screenplay to explore it. If you’re not doing that, I got news for you, you’re going to have a hard time writing a good screenplay.

6 comments:

Karen said...

Ooh... Dangerous to get people to think too hard about their friend's "things"... There's power in naming them, it's human to gossip and once someone knows their friends define them by a "thing", particularly a "fatal flaw", they feel trapped or they can rebel against it with interesting consequences... which is all good in a gaming context, but not ideal in real life!

My "Karen makes bad life choices" thing, came from a frustrated comment from one friend to another, shortly after I broke up with N (wrt having married him, not the leaving), and in the context it resonated and still does...

Steve Hickey said...

I agree: there's a danger those labels will stick in your head, even you're just playing around with them as an intellectual exercise. I wonder if there's a way to think something, learn the lesson from it, but not retain the source material?

Karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen said...

This is probably less damaging a conscious exercise... I think we are most vulnerable when we're under stress and caught unawares...

I think your "thing" would be different depending on who you asked (context again). I bet colleagues, friends from various contexts, different family members, all see us differently. Perhaps if you can keep that perspective... and if something feels "too true" maybe discuss it with someone wise who knows you in a different context? And early... before it poisons your attitude to yourself or the friend who said it!

I guess my concern is that glee with which people tell you that they've identified someone's problem, and the speed with which a character assasination (even a well meaning or speculative one can spread through a social (gossip) network... For example if someone was identified by their friends as having "Dan's thing", then even if he was really trying to commit to a new relationship, the meme could undermine it from outside...

That said... I'm now curious about what people think my "thing" is and whether it even remotely resembles what I think my current things are! :-)

Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with this - if you have a thing/character then it can easily lead to bad scriptwriting. I cite Black Hawk Down as an example where each soldier has a 'thing'; one guy is tough, another likes coffee etc. Now think of the supporting characters in, say, the Maltese Falcon, picked because they're so great. Does Joel Cairo have a thing? Does Gutman? I think this idea turns characters into tropes, like the 'she can’t forgive her husband for putting his work before her' trope, which we have all seen literally thousands of times in every second movie or tv show ever made.

Steve Hickey said...

Anonymous: I agree; used badly, the 'Thing' will inevitably create one-dimensional characters. What I like about it is that - when used in conjunction with a character's function in the plot (and giving them more than a few moments of just general human unpredictability) - the 'Thing' can help convince the audience that the character has an inner psychological life; that they exist outside of the moments we see them on screen.

But, yeah, you've reminded me not to rewatch Black Hawk Down.

I think Gutman has a thing (to seek power and advantage in every situation); I'm not so sure about Joel Cairo - he seems to be more of a brilliant and specific 'attitude'.

Anyway, good thoughts!