Developing Character

So your not-so-easy task is creating flesh-and-blood characters who will come alive on the page and the screen. You've explored and developed the character checklist, 3-D I.D., the "I want" speech, a passionate speech about the character's values, opinions, beliefs, a brief character bio to create her backstory. All these remain useful tools, but I want to offer a deceptively simple list of questions to answer about your main character in your long short screenplay.

Questions 1-4 define character, Questions 5-9 define story, and Question 10 defines your character arc—how your character is changed by the events of the story. So as you develop your character—to develop your character— answer these questions:

1. Who is your character? Answer with a beautifully crafted, significantly specific character I.D.

2. What must your character be connected to in her life or she'll wither up and die (besides the obvious food and shelter)?

3. What does your character want in the story (goal)?

4. Why (motivation)? And why now (how is this day different from any other)?

5. What does your character do to get it (action)?

6. What obstacles—internal and external—does your character meet on the way (conflict)?

7. What's at stake—lost—if your character fails?

8. Does your character succeed or fail?

9. What connections, disconnections, reconnections does your character go through in the story?

10. How is your character changed in the course of the story?

Question 2 always throws my students. What do I mean when I ask what their character must be connected to? Do I mean what the character must be connected to in her life or in the screenplay?

I mean both. If you define what your character must be connected to in her life, you'll bring that into your screenplay. Color me stubborn, but I keep this question on the list because I think it offers a less obvious and often richer approach to defining who your character is. Consider yourself and your own life. What must you be connected to or you'll wither and die? This reveals a great deal about your deepest self. For me, it's family, friends, laughter, creativity, beauty, nature, adventure, and chocolate. Okay, maybe I could thrive without chocolate, but not without the other six things.

Knowing what your character must be connected to will help you define who she is, where she is, what she does in your screenplay. As we prepared to write our feature, Winterfort, Pam Ball and I kicked this question around for our main character, Jack. Two important things surfaced—he must be connected to Claire (the love of his life) and he must be connected to nature (he feels restless, cooped-up, indoors). Jack's non-negotiable need to be connected to Claire gave us the emotional spine of the screenplay, and his need to be connected to nature gave his scenes richness and resonance—and fresher settings. Pam and I shifted scenes once set in kitchens and living rooms (The First Thing That Swam By) to the great lush outdoors of rural north Florida.

The answer to Question 2 may help you find the answer to 3—What does your character want in the screenplay? The answer to Question 4—Why and why now?—further defines your character, her experience, and her situation when your screenplay begins. And Question 5—What does your character do to get what she wants?—brings us to story, though I'm struck again by the interconnectedness of character and action. They're two sides of the same thing—a human being and a human doing.


Doing, as you well know by now, is the root meaning of drama. So answering Question 5 is one of the best ways to define and develop your story. Once you've defined what your character wants (goal) and why she wants it (motivation), you can define what she does to get it (action). Though she's talking about features, Linda Seger offers a method for defining and developing a story that's terrific for writing short screenplays. Seger breaks down the story of Back to the Future this way, clearly indicating the obstacles Marty meets as he tries to accomplish his goal:

Motivation Action Goal

A beefed-up De Lorean forces Marty into the past

He overcomes Mother's advances, seeks out the Professor, fights with Biff, dresses as Darth Vader to motivate George to ask Lorraine out. He cajoles, persuades, manipulates, in order to survive and get back to the future.4

This exercise—a MAG, I like to call it (motivation, action, goal)—is a dynamic way to develop, define, and clarify your story. You might even create a fourth column—"Or Else"—to clarify stake. (Marty would have never existed, you could say for Back to the Future).

It's important to note, however, that wonderful stories have been created where the main character is not the intentional character—the one with the goal in the story. The main character may be the focal character—think Othello—but someone else—Iago—is the intentional one, the character who drives the story. The same is true in Cool Breeze and Buzz—Paula is focal, but Buzz drives the story. Again, play the possibilities as you develop your story.

When you've answered Questions 6-8, move on to Question 9—What connections, disconnections, reconnections does your character go through in the story? This can yield rich story possibilities you may not have considered, as well as providing the greatest emotional power to your story and thus the moments of the greatest audience connection. The peak empathic moments in films, long and short, are often the moments of connection, disconnection, and reconnection. Think of Forrest Gump. For all its historical conflict and sweep, our greatest points of emotional connection to the story are his moments of connection, disconnection, and reconnection with Jenny, Bubba, and his mother.

Last, as you develop your story, explore Question 10—How is your character changed in the course of your story? This is the character arc, the deep action, the difference that external events made to your character's inner landscape. The change may be small—a tiny turn of the screw—but your character will never be quite the same.

Two other excellent tools for developing and defining your story are the premise and the synopsis, or overview. "Premise" is the word used by Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing (Woody Allen's favorite book on play-writing) to mean the "theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot, basic emotion" of a dramatic work. Egri prefers the word premise "because it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation."

"A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play," Egri writes. It implies a character, an action, and an outcome. The premise of Romeo and Juliet, he tells us, is great love defies even death. The premise of King Lear is blind trust leads to destruction, and the premise of Macbeth is ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.5

Egri's speaking of plays, but the same can be said of good screenplays. The premise of Back to the Future is a moment of courage can change the course of a life, and the premise of Babe is an unprejudiced heart can change the course of life in the valley. Neither film ever preaches, but the action of each is a wonderful working out of its premise.

A premise is richer and deeper than a logline, which summarizes the surface action in one sentence (think TV Guide). Premise moves beneath the surface action of a screenplay to its deep subject—what it's really about. This can help you dig deeper as you develop your story. And ideally, every scene in your screenplay will, on some level, be about this deep subject.

If a premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your screenplay, the next step is writing the paragraph-long synopsis or overview—as Brady and Lee call it in The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television. This is extremely useful in developing story. A good synopsis—as Rob McCaffrey's for The Buse shows—touches on the tone of the screenplay and gives a brief overview of the characters and the story:

The Buse is a modern day fairy tale in which all of the daily, little aggravations which happen to people are personified in the form of spirits called Buses. The story follows a day in the life of a New Buse, whose refusal to torment mortals has gotten him in trouble with the other members of his species. New is desperate to find a line of work which will let him help mankind, but how will he manage it without ticking off his higher-ups? Striking a deal with a Muse which might get him out of his predicament, New agrees to try to inspire a mortal man to win back an old love. The only problem: The lady is getting married to another man the same day!

Rob left us hanging as to the ending (New fails as a Muse but succeeds as a Buse and, realizing how helpful his Buse-ive powers can be, he accepts his rightful role in the great scheme of things), but it's helpful to articulate how your screenplay will end. You might also want to begin your synopsis, as Rob does, by introducing what your screenplay's about ("the daily, little aggravations that happen to people") or as Brady and Lee do in their overview of Kramer vs. Kramer: "Kramer vs. Kramer is a contemporary marital and family drama about the changing roles of men and women in American society."

You may find it useful, after the synopsis, to develop your story in greater detail in a treatment—an expanded prose telling of the story. Bob Gray wrote the screenplay for The Making of "Killer Kite" from a one-page story treatment written by Matt Stevens, who directed the film. Or you may want to bypass synopsis and treatment and develop your scenes and story on cards. The important thing is to know your story and the moments of change that move it along from beginning to end. Once you do, you can begin to design your screenplay's structure.

Which brings us to plot, too often equated with story. The two, in fact, are not the same, and the distinction is important and useful. Story is the events or moments of change in the order they happen—A to Z. Plot is the order of events as you choose to tell them, pure and simple, though there's nothing simple about it.

"Plotting is more than the order of the events," Shelby Foote said.

The events you choose to show and the order in which you choose to show them are major artistic decisions. Why? Because the order of events has a profound effect on how compelling, ironic, or moving your screenplay will be. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Your material may work best in a three-act structure—an inciting incident, a turning point at the end of Act One and Act Two, and a climax and resolution at the end of Act Three. But as many fine screenplays—long and short—show, there are other wonderful structural options. Look at Pulp Fiction. It's far more compelling and ironic told in a nonlinear structure.

So is The Making of "Killer Kite." Told in a nonlinear, mockumentary structure, the film intercuts scenes from the cult horror flick "Killer Kite" (shot in film) with scenes of the making of the flick (shot in video), media coverage and reviews of the film, and an after-the-fact interview with the director, Colin Kishman. This structure works extremely well for the subject, increasing the irony and often gut-busting humor (I recently reread the script on the porch at our farm and laughed so loud I startled the ducks from the pond). But it can work well for tragedy, too; The Sweet Hereafter intercuts an after-the-fact conversation on an airplane with the story's main action.

We are so tied to seamless realism in this culture, we tend to overlook the fluidity and freedom of film. I recommend Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush's Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules if you want to explore alternative structures. Or for sheer inspiration, I strongly recommend screening Michael Verhoeven's German film Nasty Girl, a compelling narrative told in a bold mix of past and present, color and black and white, fourth-wall realism and direct address.6 And closer to home, take a look at Steven Soder-bergh's film Out of Sight. The screenwriter, Scott Frank, begins the script with an event that actually occurs very late in the story:



The financial district. Lots of people in suits. A shaky, spasmodic ZOOM IN finds . . .

JACK FOLEY—forty, big, focused expression—as he rips a tie from around his neck and throws it down in the gutter. He starts across the street, now peeling off his suitcoat and dropping that, too, right there on the asphalt. . .7

We have no idea why Foley rips off his necktie and throws it down in the gutter or peels off his suitcoat, dropping that too (and we don't find out until late in the film), but it's intriguing. We start asking questions. And curiosity is a fabulous hook, a sure-fire way to hold someone's attention. Just ask Pandora.

If you decide to design a nonlinear plot for your story, be sure you don't lose your audience along the way. And there's no shame in choosing a traditional linear three-act structure if that best serves your story and dramatic purpose. As Jerry Stern used to say in his workshops when students complained that they couldn't come up with snazzy, newfangled plots, "When all else fails, chronology works."

Whatever your structure, once it's designed, type up a Scene-By-Scene for your screenplay—the scenes in the order they happen on screen. When you've read it through several times and you're sure your surface and deep action are clear and your character's emotional flow is convincing, it's time to start drafting your scenes.

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