September 20, 2004

character building blocks

Iíve been enjoying Tad Bitterís series of lessons on screenwriting. Heís doing a good job of it and even though Iím no longer writing scripts, I appreciate the recap. Story structure is story structure in every form. The script format is particularly unforgiving but by its spare nature it allows you to see the bones, the framework a good story needs.

I have a quibble with a recent entry, though. He says:

It helps to pick a character type that already exists in another film or book and go from there. Once you do that itís time to make him or her your own. Give them some depth. How do you do this? Flaws. Great characters have flaws. Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes. Robert Langdon of ďThe Da Vinci CodeĒ was afraid of heights. The book Iím reading now has a protagonist whoís a recovering alcoholic whoís already fallen off the wagon again in the first fifty pages. Heís a tragic hero of sorts. If you give them a few flaws, itís going to affect the way your character reacts to a given situation.

First, this may just be me, but I have a problem with the idea of taking a character from another book or film. Sure, you can find archetypes this way and yes, you can alter them to make them your own. But I think when you do that, youíre in danger of perpetuating the endlessly devolving filmic stereotypes that make us all wince when we watch movies. Why not bring something fresh to the mix? Why not look around you, use people you know, types youíve run across in your life? At the LA Times Book Fair this spring, Sherman Alexie spoke about how his story ideas sometimes spark from people he may see just for a few minutes, but their attitude, their demeanor and emotional affect imbue some spirit he wants to explore and thus a story is born. Me, I pluck characters from my life for short stories but in my scripts and long fiction, I donít take my model from either fiction or real life. The characters simply emerge and after a certain point I feel like I know them. They become real to me, maybe because Iíve known people like that or maybe because in some way I am people like that. Their pain is mine, their quirks are sometimes mine or maybe their strength is one Iíd like to borrow.

Second Ė and this was the main point I wanted to make Ė I hate the (extremely common) film writerís convention of giving the protagonist some specific, discrete fear or quirk, most especially a singular event from the past that shapes him or her. It feels so damned contrived. I know it can be a kind of shorthand in a foreshortened medium. But itís part of what makes movies flatter and less rich than they could be. When you can sum up a character in a single quirky fear, it diminishes him and I as a viewer stop believing in him as a person. I fall out of the movie.

I remember a screenwriter friend once telling me that the way to create character quickly was to find something external: a limp, a parrot on the shoulder, a shroud of smoke from a constantly lit pipe. Itís an instant visual and it can work, but you need more. Why the pipe, wherefore the limp, what relationship does this person have with said bird? Can we go deeper? Admittedly, sometimes itís better not to delve. Sometimes itís better to leave a quirk unexplored and simply let it add texture if itís one small part rather than all of your character work. But I still think a lifetime of alcoholism with a recent sobriety (Tadís other example) is a far better building block toward creating an interesting character than a fear of snakes. Itís bigger, meatier, brings with it more baggage. It simply means more. If youíre going for shorthand, why not choose something that can resonate? I once wrote a script with a character who was afraid of public speaking, afraid of crowds in general. It pays off in the story in various ways but you know? Itís pretty dumb. In retrospect, I could have done something more with it. For instance, if sheíd been on or near the autistic spectrum, if the sensory over-stimulation made her nerves stutter and misfire, that could have made the fear work as part of a larger picture. But as the center of a character in and of itself? Even with a backstory to explain it? Shallow is thy name. Contrivance is thy game.

It's hard to create a character with three dimensions using only word images. An actor breathes some life into that persona and of course in fiction, you've got more breathing room as well. But it's hard to capture someone on the page, which is why writers resort to contrivances.

If you think about it, it's hard to capture someone you know. Even yourself. I look in the mirror, I know me. But if I describe that woman I see, I know -- because I've experienced this -- that a close friend will turn around and say, "Nuh-uh, that's not you at all. You're underselling yourself" or "You're exaggerating that" or even "What the hell are you talking about?" Who's right? The Tamar that Toni would describe probably bears some resemblance but is not quite the person that Dan would describe or that Diane or my mom would describe. Or Damian, for that matter. I'd be very curious to hear his take on who Mommy is. A true knowledge of me, who I am, in a way can only be arrived at in pieces, a myriad of mirrors.

So how can we build a person from scratch, describe her in terse script form or even the more detailed novelistic impressionism? We can't. But we have to find our way through to enough detail and enough reality so that it seems that we do. It's so easy to fall back on crutches but I think they diminish that reality. They become less than fully human. The trick is to catch the right set of mirror images, catch that glimpse of humanity in your character, and jot it down before it slips away. Like catching a ghost in a jar. Except a whole lot easier. Because though we can't fully know each other or even ourselves, we do have this gut-level sense of what a person is, how it feels to go through certain experiences and how that might change you both in large ways and small ones. And if we can catch that essence, the quirks and odd fears and all the rest emerge naturally. Tricky but eminently doable.

Posted by Tamar at September 20, 2004 10:51 PM

My rebuttal on my page... :)

Posted by: Tad Bitter at September 21, 2004 10:45 AM

Some disparate thoughts:

  • I love when you write these sorts of posts about writing. (Not that I'm suggesting you should have a single issue blog - not at all, I love lots of your other writing too.)
  • In writing fiction, I tend to take situations from life - or I take bits of situations, or hypothetical situations that spring in my mind from real situations - rather than people. Then as I'm writing I imagine how a character (with whatever history I've already discovered for them) might react in that situation and based on the characters' reactions I find out more about them. If it's only the beginning of the story - with no, or very little, established history for the characters - I just write whatever comes into my head. Which may end up causing more rewriting than imagining the character first, but I like it that way. That's how it's fun for me.
  • Does the fact that I didn't know your mom had a blog show that I really haven't been paying attention, or just that I usually don't have time to follow links?
Posted by: Kay at September 23, 2004 08:39 PM