Question via Twitter from @MahinWriter:
My issue: I can outline plot, but my character arcs feel weak. Got a blog post for that!?
It’s an important question and I appreciate you asking it, Michael, because with all the emphasis on screenplay structure in the online screenwriting universe — and by structure, most ‘gurus’ mean plot — there are a lot of script floating around that where writers hit the mark in terms of plot points and page count, but have created formulaic stories with little or no emotional resonance. And where should that emotional resonance come from? Why, characters, of course!
So the short answer is this: Spend more time with your characters! How to develop them? Try these techniques:
Questionnaire: A series of questions about your characters. Here is an example:
What is your name?
How old are you?
How would you describe your physical appearance?
How do you feel about the way you look?
Who are your parents?
Describe your relationship with your mother.
Describe your relationship with your father.
Who is the most important person in your life? Why?
Are you in love?
If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.
If not, why not?
Describe what your soul-mate would be like.
Do you believe in God?
If so, describe your relationship with God.
If not, why not?
When did you stop believing in God?
Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?
What do you do for a living?
If you like your job, explain why.
If not explain why not.
In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?
Please fill in the following…
My biggest strengths are…
My biggest weaknesses are…
I am most proud of…
I am most ashamed of…
I am most angry about…
And finally, be as honest as you can with this question…
I am most afraid of…
Biography: You act as historian and construct a life for your character, focusing on key relationships and events that may come into play in terms of their personality and events in your story.
Interview: Assume the role of a reporter, police detective, someone with a vested interest in getting information from a character, then go at them in the first person voice.
Sit-downs: This is the most ‘mystical’ of the techniques, but can also be one of the most valuable. Close the door, shut off your phone, sit at your computer, put your hands on your keyboard, close your eyes, and summon up an image of the character in question. If you can’t form a face, focus on one prominent feature — hands, hair, shoes, eyes. Then sit with them… and type. Don’t open your eyes, don’t edit what you’re typing, just write down the impressions, thoughts and feelings that come into your consciousness. Do this at least for a half-hour. Now what you end up with may be 90% misspelled crap, but even if just 10% of what you have on paper is gold, you’re ahead of the game. And in my experience, that 10% is often essential stuff, keys to the character. Do this exercise with all of your primary characters. You may choose to do it several times with your Protagonist and others over the course of your prep-writing as they evolve to check in with them.
Archetypes: At some point, it’s helpful to drill down and see what your main characters’ essential narrative function is, then you can ascribe to them one of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. But there are a whole host of other archetypes and you can consider each of your main characters in relation to them from a list like this one. For instance a Mentor who is a martyr is entirely different than a thief, an Attractor who is a virgin is different than a femme fatale.
Bottom line you are trying to do three things: (1) Go into your characters so you dig up key aspects of who they are. (2) Identify what their respective narrative functions are. (3) Understand how they work together as an ensemble especially in relation to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis journey.
Through that, hopefully the characters will come to life in your imagination and in your writing, it will be much more about them telling the story than you, and your plot will benefit from it.
Readers, do you have any other suggestions? Please head to comments and opine away!