Transcript: My 11/11/12 #scriptchat session on character-based screenwriting

November 12th, 2012 by

Yesterday at 8PM, I was the guest for the weekly Scriptchat Twitter conversation. Subject: Character-based screenwriting, essentially my overall take on the craft.

Go below the fold to read a transcript of my remarks:

First an alert to my nearly 10,000 followers: I will be tweeting a lot this hour.

Apologies in advance for the clutter. Hopefully you’ll find the discussion enlightening.

Next a warm welcome to everyone in the scriptchat community.

You are an important resource for aspiring screenwriters. I commend what you do and thank you for the invitation.

The subject today: Character-based screenwriting.

I will be happy to answer questions, but want to take the first 10-15 minutes or so…

To frame the discussion, so please bear with me.

What is character-based screenwriting?

It is an approach toward writing a screenplay that starts and ends with characters.

Everything about a screenplay – plot, subplots, pace, tone, theme, dialogue, subtext – ALL of it derives from the story’s characters.

Why my emphasis on character-based screenwriting?

Multiple reasons. Let me give you three.

1. In my view, there’s a huge imbalance on what typically gets discussed re screenwriting between structure and character.

And by structure, that almost always means “plot”.

Structure is important, even critical. A screenplay is the foundation for making a movie.

My concern is not structure per se, but HOW a writer gets there.

In my view the best way to do that is find the structure THROUGH the characters.

After all it is THEY who live in the story universe, THEY whose tales we are telling.

So from my perspective, screenplay structure should arise from the writer immersing him/herself in characters.

In other words: Character = Plot.

2. The single best way for a writer to go into the story is by working with characters.

By digging into and developing them, the writer is naturally drawn into the story universe.

In effect the characters become your allies in leading you into and through the story-crafting process.

3. Among the frequent complaints about spec scripts, here are the most common I hear:

Formulaic stories. Weakly written characters. Little or no emotional resonance to the story.

Character-based screenwriting is the best way I know to attack these problems.

When you dig into characters, they can surprise you by how they act, taking the plot in unusual directions.

When you dig into characters, you find levels of depth and distinctive traits that make them strong figures.

When you dig into characters, you uncover the heart and soul of your story, creating a point of emotional connection for readers.

Okay, that’s my intro. Before I get into tips on how to develop characters, any questions?

Someone asked a question about whether story structure has changed over the years.

I actually teach a course called The History of American Screenwriting and it’s surprising…

The basic narrative arc of movies has changed very little.

Yes, movies have grown from one-reelers to two-hours, but key dynamics always there…

Protagonist v. Nemesis, rising action, twists and turns, resolution at the end. Basic Hero’s Journey stuff.

Do I follow a formula for character development? No, but I do have a PROCESS. It’s what I teach at Screenwriting Master Class.

Let me get into some tips and you’ll get the gist of it.

The primary goal in developing characters is to engage them in direct relationships.

You do that first by embracing this belief: They exist.

Your story’s characters EXIST. Their story universe EXISTS. They WANT you to tell their story.

It’s up to YOU to create a connection with each of them so you understand them, know them, and hear them.

How to do this? Here are four tools, I’m sure many of you use them, but let’s review and aggregate them.

1. Character questionnaire: A series of questions you ask each character.

There are plenty of these available online. Here is one I found today:

One key here: Ask the questions in the second person. “How old are YOU? What do YOU do for a living?”

You are trying to make the characters come to life. By interacting with them in an I-You manner, you can do that.

The value of a questionnaire: You surface a lot of potentially valuable information about your characters…

And start to make your characters come to life.

2. Character biography: Another way to dig into characters is by writing up their personal history.

Obviously these can vary in length and depth. However in general the more you learn, the better off you are.

If your character exists and that story universe exists, then character will have their own distinctive backstory.

Dig into that and write it up into a coherent narrative.

3. Character Sit-Down: Close the door, shut off your phone, sit down, close your eyes, think of your character, then type.

Do this for 30 minutes. Do not edit. Do not judge what you are writing. Just sit with your character and see what emerges.

This may take some practice, but if you give yourself over to your characters, you will discover some gold.

They will surprise you with what they reveal. Characters, like humans, have multiple facets to their psyche.

By sitting with them and letting them ‘speak’ to you, you will learn so much about your characters.

4. Character Monologue: After you have learned something about a character, write a monologue.

Allow them to speak on a subject. Or make a confession. Or vent their frustrations.

This will not only help you understand them better, it will also enable you to start getting a sense of their voice.

Jump-start your ability to write distinctive, compelling dialogue per each character.

Those are four character development tools. I have lots of others, but again the point is to dig into characters…

And engage them in an I-You relationship where you and they exist, and they reveal themselves to you.

Question about which characters to do biographies, sit-downs, etc.

Absolutely you should do this with all of your primary characters. Secondary characters, maybe not so much.

Also all of this character development is SCALABLE. If you are writing a big sweeping epic drama, that’s one thing.

OTOH if you’re writing an R-rated comedy, obviously you don’t have to dig as deep. That said…

Even movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover have characters who are unique and have their issues.

These are all helpful tools, but they do not go far enough.

In order to work with characters in a screenplay, I believe you need to embrace this principle:

Character = Function.

Maybe not in novel or short stories, but all primary characters in a movie have a narrative function.

They do not exist randomly nor do the choices they make derive independent of the Plotline.

In most movies, everything is driven by the Protagonist: their wants, needs, and unique psychological journey.

In my view, the Protagonist is one of five primary narrative functions, represented by these archetypes:

Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster.

We see these character types and their respective narrative functions in movie after movie after movie…

These characters interact in the External World in terms of the Plotline.

They also intersect in the Internal World and what I call the Themeline, the psychological realm of a screenplay.

Joseph Campbell said the point of the Hero’s Journey is transformation.

Most mainstream commercial movies involve a Protagonist going through some sort of metamorphosis.

When we, as writers, tap into and understand that about our Protagonists, we open up the story in a HUGE way.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy went on her Hero’s Journey in order to see how her home actually WAS a home.

In “Tootsie,” Michael Dorsey went on his Hero’s Journey to learn how to be a better man by being a woman.

In “The Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice Starling went on her Hero’s Journey to confront her deepest fears.

In almost all movies, a Protagonist starts off in a state of Disunity.

The events of the Plotline impact their metamorphosis in the Themeline, leading [generally] to Unity.

A story does not exist solely in plot. There must be underlying emotional dynamics or else it is meaningless noise.

This is what I preach on my blog. This is what I teach at Screenwriting Master Class. This is how I write.

Start with character. End with character. And discover everything you need for a rich compelling story in between.

Okay, that’s my spiel. I’m open to any and all questions about character-based screenwriting or screenwriting in general.

A question about Dual Protagonists…

Most mainstream commercial movies are single Protagonist, positive transformation stories.

But there are other types of Protagonist models.

There are Co-Protagonists, like buddy type comedies where two or more Protags share a single journey.

There are Dual Protagonists where two Protags intersect but have two distinctive destinies like Shawshank Redemption.

The thing about character archetypes is they are endlessly malleable, we can shape them in a multitude of ways.

If you have a Dual Protag story, you need to work with each as the Protag in their own unique story.

In Shawshank, Andy had to confront the injustice of being imprisoned wrongly but also his role in losing his wife.

In Shawshank, Red had to confront the impact of ‘institutionalization’ and find the last flicker of hope to “get busy living.”

BTW another great thing about working with character archetypes is you can switch Protagonists.

As an exercise, look at EACH primary character as the Protagonist, their take on the story universe…

In fact they ARE their own Protagonist…

So for example in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice is the Protagonist, Buffalo Bill is the Nemesis, Lecter is the Mentor…

Catherine Martin [kidnap victim] is the Attractor, and Dr. Alex Chilton is the Trickster.

Switch Protagonists so Lecter is the P, then the N is Chilton, A is Clarice, M is Buffalo Bill [provides clues to Lecter]…

And Trickster is Jack Crawford who sends in Clarice to trick Lecter.

Switching Protagonist exercise is really, really helpful in character development and a major benefit working with archetypes.

Let me scroll back through posts to see other questions, so be back in a sec…

Here was a question: “Would you agree with me saying that developing a story is throwing mice at a maze?”

I would say this: Characters and the story they exist within do not exist arbitrarily. They have DESTINIES.

Carl Jung had this idea that our task as humans was to engage all aspects of our psyche…

Including and especially the dark aspects, what he called the “shadow”…

And if we don’t, the universe creates circumstances which FORCE us to. Now let’s transplant that idea to story…

Your Protagonist is in Disunity. They have cobbled together a life, beliefs and behaviors, but it is an inauthentic life.

Their authentic self lies within, but they have been ignoring or repressing it. And like all stories, something happens…

The Herald’s Call! The Call to Adventure!

Dorothy gets swept up to Oz in a tornado! Clarice lands the task of interview Lecter. Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels.

What if we look at those as not random, but the story universe creating circumstances to FORCE the P to confront their Disunity?

Dorothy HAD to go to Oz in order to learn “there’s no place like home”?

Clarice HAD to intersect with Lecter in order for him to Mentor her into her fearful self and the screaming lambs.

Michael Dorsey HAD to become Dorothy Michaels to force him to confront how he was a rather chauvinistic, manipulative guy.

So a maze? Yes, in a way. Each Protagonist has their own destiny which can be defined by…

And that was that, the session ended with a cliffhanger. Why?

Because I got put in Twitter jail!

Evidently I posted too many tweets in a set amount of time and it blocked my access. That led to folks in the session creating this hashtag:


Anyhow there’s the transcript. There’s a lot more to discuss on the subject of character-based screenwriting. Indeed it is the foundation of everything I teach at Screenwriting Master Class, from the theory Core and Craft classes to the Prep and Pages workshops, and of course the 24-week Quest program which I offer on a private one-on-one basis with individual writers.

Thanks again to the Scriptchat community for inviting me as a guest yesterday. Must have resonated because my Twitter followers blew past the 10,000 mark [now at 10,131]. If you aren’t following me on Twitter, you should – especially now that I’m out of jail!


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