Rewriting Your Script, Part 3: Characters

January 9th, 2013 by

Since dozens of writers used Go On Your Own Quest to pound out a first draft of their original screenplay, I decided to start off the New Year with a week-long series on rewriting, to honor their commitment and effort, and to encourage them [and everyone else] on their creative journey.

We’ve all heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting,” right? Perhaps nowhere is that more true than screenwriting. Aspiring screenwriters know this because of the number of drafts they go through to whip their script into readable shape. Professional screenwriters understand this because of the multiple drafts they do on any project, whether on spec or assignment.

Rewriting is just the nature of the screenwriting beast.

But that begs the question: How? What are some keys to the rewriting process? Instead of wandering around in the dark not knowing if you’re improving the story or not, is there a coherent approach to rewriting your scripts?

First off, the same thing applies to rewriting as to writing: There is no right way to write. There is no right way to rewrite. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And every rewrite is different.

That said, this week I will lay out some keys to the process. If they help you, great. Use them with my blessing. If they don’t help you, feel free to chuck them.

Part 3: Characters

After your clean read, it’s time to go back through your draft again. And again. And again. Four aspect on which you can focus: Characters. Themes. Structure. Pace. Today let’s talk about characters.

We are not talking about novels, we are talking about screenplays. As screenwriters, we have no more than 120 pages within which to introduce and handle a cast of characters, manage a Plotline and numerous subplots, explore the Themeline, and hope that in the end we have told a whacking good story. Unlike a novelist, we don’t have the freedom to go off for 20 pages, veering into the backstory of a character because a script averages just 60 scenes from FADE IN to FADE OUT. As screenwriters we are forced to focus our characters and their respective narrative functions simply to survive the relentless push forward from P. 1 to P. 2 to P. 3 and so on.

Therefore every character in a script must have a reason to exist. Each character must influence the attitudes and actions of other characters. Each character must contribute directly to the advancement of the plot.

Thus a key consideration when rewriting a script is to determine the following: What is this character’s narrative function?

If you can’t figure that out, you have some work to do. If you can figure it out, then you have another question to ask: How does this character’s narrative function fit in with all the other characters?

Determining a character’s narrative function may seem reductionist in nature… and it is, but in a unique way. You are not diminishing the uniqueness of a character, but rather identifying their core essence. Everything about them – backstory, world view, personality, voice, habits, beliefs – should be identifiably tied to their core essence.

What exactly is core essence? It is that critical aspect of a character’s being that defines who they are. It is a foundational part of their persona, that which lies at the center of the psyche, and it can only be found inside the character, their Internal World.

Any writer who has engaged in even a small measure of character development will have dealt with these type of questions: What is driving this character? What do they want? What do they need? What is it they fear most? What lies at the base of who they are? We take all those queries and address them to the major characters in our story, and if we keep drilling into them, we discover their core essence. In a screenplay, their core essence is directly connected to their narrative function.

We see this clearly when dealing with the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster:

Protagonist: Almost always the central character in the movie. It is their goal, their journey that creates the spine of the Plotline.

Nemesis: The Nemesis provides an antagonist function in that they work in opposition to the Protagonist. Generally their goal is the same as the Protagonist or involves the same elements, only the Nemesis has a different intent in mind.

Attractor: Oftentimes a romance figure, the Attractor is an ally, one most intimately connected with the Protagonist’s emotional growth.

Mentor: Typically a teaching figure, the Mentor is an ally most directly connected with the Protagonist’s intellectual development.

Trickster: Often a sidekick character, the Trickster tests the Protagonist’s will, shifting from ally to enemy, back and forth.

For purposes of shorthand:

  • Protagonist: Hero
  • Nemesis: The Protagonist’s Shadow
  • Attractor: The Protagonist’s Heart
  • Mentor: The Protagonist’s Head
  • Trickster: The Protagonist’s Will

Each character tied to the Protagonist and his/her metamorphosis, this narrative archetype common to almost all stories.

After your clean read, I suggest you focus on characters. They are the heart, blood, body and soul of your story. The more you engage them, understand them, and see the story universe through each of their eyes, the more they will inform you what the story is and should be about.

Tomorrow: Themes.

Part 1: Set It Aside

Part 2: A Clean Read

FYI: Tom Benedek will be teaching the next session of Pages II: Rewriting Your Script through Screenwriting Master Class beginning February 18.

Be sure to check out the free Go On Your Own Quest Forums, an online writing community and extension of this blog.

5 thoughts on “Rewriting Your Script, Part 3: Characters

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    I try to do a pass through the script for each character (just like the actor playing that character would). I start with what I know about that character and what I’ve learned in earlier drafts of the script. Then I go through the scenes that that particular character is in, and look at the scenes from that character’s point of view. What does s/he want in this scene? What obstructs her or him? What are her/his relationships with the protagonist and the other characters like? How do those relationships change? Is the character’s voice consistent? Does the character have a characteristic kind of physicality? What attitude and POV does the character bring to each scene? Etc.

    One of my favourite examples of a balanced film where minor characters still have strong attitudes, unique POVs, and individual voices is the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three with Walter Matthau.

    1. Scott says:

      You can sort through characters even more:

      • Primary Characters: The major players in a story, appearing in numerous scenes throughout the script, the focal point of the Plotline and/or key subplots.

      • Secondary Characters: Important but supporting roles, generally appearing in fewer scenes and with a narrower narrative function.

      • Tertiary Characters: Bit players who appear in one scene to perform a single function in relation to the plot.

      Thus the next thing you can do is take your master list of characters and divide them into Primary Characters, Secondary Characters, and Tertiary Characters.

      Then for each character, regardless of importance, answer these questions: What is their narrative function? What is the point of their existence in the story?

      If you do not have a clear answer, you will want to think more thoroughly about that character. Do they contribute something necessary to the narrative? Does the story really need them?

      Next turn your attention to the story’s Primary Characters and ask these questions of each:

      • What is the character’s core essence [individual persona]?

      • What is the character’s narrative function [story purpose]?

      • How does the character influence the Protagonist on their journey?

      All of these can help bring clarity to your understanding of your story’s characters.

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        Scott, all of this is too useful to leave buried in the comments–I hope you’ll put it up in its own post.

        Because I was working with a Shakespeare play as source material for my GOYOQ, I faced condensing a large theatrical cast into a manageable cinematic cast size–and I wound up looking at a lot of those kinds of questions in Prep, as I looked for ways to cut characters or conflate multiple characters into a single role. These questions will be a good check list when I go into editing, too, to vet those cast choices again.

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