Reader Question: What are some suggestions for doing character ‘interviews’?

March 25th, 2015 by

A reader question from Alex_kelaru in comments to a recent blog post in which I closed with this takeaway:

Do some interactive writing exercises with your story’s key characters where you zero in on what they believe, why they believe it, and how they see the world. Whether it’s an interview, monologue, sit-down, or journal entry, engage your characters in a dialogue. Learn what makes them tick… and why.

The question from Alex:

Great advice, I usually use the interview technique, I pretend I meet with my character in a coffee shop or some place out of their ordinary world and conduct an interview. Questions like ‘why do you think your story is worth telling’ or ‘Why might audiences dislike you?’ are some of the ones I ask.

However, Scott, I have a question. When you do an exercise like this, at what moment in the character’s life do you do the interview/monologue/sit-down. The character changes throughout the screenplay and an interview at the beginning might be (and it should be) very different then at the end of the story. I’m just wondering which one would be more useful ?

Good question, Alex. Over the years, I have aggregated a wide variety of character development tools which I use myself and have taught in the dozens of writing workshops I’ve led during the last decade. They are an excellent means by which we can interface with our characters, delve into them, dig into their core essence, determine their respective narrative functions, then build out from that foundation, exploring their distinctive personalities, and eventually hearing their unique voices.

The only way to do that is to engage your characters directly, deeply, and throughout the entire story-crafting and writing process.

As to when to engage them, at what point or points in their lives, this raises the fact that your characters exist. They live, indeed, have lived in their story universe 24/7/365 for the entirety of their existence. So you can begin in their Present, where they start the story. What is their current mentality and emotional state? If you are dealing with your Protagonist(s), be attuned to aspects of their psyche which are in conflict, either conscious or unconscious. I refer to this initial state as Disunity. [The Protagonist does not always go from Disunity to Unity, a positive transformation arc, but in most mainstream Hollywood movies, they do.]

But even a cursory amount of character work in the Present will point to influences from the Past which has led the character to their starting psychological state as well as the circumstances they find themselves in relative to the plot. That inevitably draws us into the character’s personal history.

I draw a distinction between personal history and backstory:

Personal History: Everything that’s ever happened to a character.
Backstory: Events / dynamics specifically tied to your story’s narrative.

Between character questionnaires and biographies, you can dig up much of this content. However you can also do interviews, sit-downs, monologues and the like with the character from a point in their Past.

For example, consider Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. When we meet her, she is an F.B.I. agent-in-training. But her Disunity is rooted in key experiences from her past, specifically when her father was killed when she was an 11 year-old girl. If you were developing this story, why not engage Clarice as a young girl? Before her father died. As she visited him in the hospital while he lay dying. At the funeral for her father. Indeed, the movie has two flashbacks, both of which feature Clarice at age 11.

What insights into Clarice’s persona could you gain from interfacing with her as a young girl? Enough to surface these two key moments… and presumably much more, including her traumatic experiences on her uncle’s Montana farm.

So you can engage the character in the Present and the Past. But why not jump ahead to the Future? Where does the character end up in terms of the metamorphosis? If it’s a positive arc, what does that Unity state look like?

There’s no single program and certainly no formula to dictate how a writer can develop their characters. I believe you have to trust your gut. If interviews are working, great. Do that. If not, try something else, a biography or questionnaire. Can’t get a sense of a character in the Present? Fine. Dig into their personal history by engaging them in the Past.

And then there some of my favorite tools: Character Archetypes. Once you dig into your characters and start to get a feel for them, consider their respective narrative functions. Who is the Protagonist? Nemesis? Attractor? Mentor? Trickster? I have been working with archetypes for over a decade now and find them endlessly fascinating. I look forward to digging into this content again starting Monday, March 30 in my upcoming Character Development Keys class. It’s a terrific course as we use The Dark Knight for our study script, a classic example of these five character archetypes at work in the narrative. For information on that, go here.

Bottom line, do whatever you can to engage your characters. No one knows the story better than them. You can connect with them in the Present, Past and Future to give you a deep understanding of who they are, why they are and where they’re going.

To read all of the posts in the Reader Questions archive, over 300 of them, go here.

Character Development Keys

March 23rd, 2015 by

If there’s one question I get asked about screenwriting theory more than any other it’s what’s my deal with character archetypes? Here’s your chance to find out what that deal is with the Screenwriting Master Class course: Character Development Keys.

It’s a 1-week online class where you do pretty much everything on your own time schedule: download and read lectures, review and post comments on the public forums, upload ideas and optional writing exercises. You want to do that in bed in your pajamas sipping coffee? Be my guest!

There is one teleconference which is live, but I record and upload that, so you can even check that out on your own time, too.

As to the course itself, there are seven lectures written by yours truly:

1: Character Archetypes and Story Structure
2: Protagonist
3: Nemesis
4: Attractor
5: Mentor
6: Trickster
7: Switch Protagonist

The study script for the course: The Dark Knight, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane. If you’re a fan of this movie, that alone is probably reason enough to take this class because you will understand the film in a whole new way, through the lens of character archetypes.

In addition, you will get the opportunity to put the theories you learn into action by workshopping one of your own stories.

And as a bonus: I’ll be presenting a set of character development tools I have assembled over the years to help you dig into characters even further to uncover their unique personalities and voice.

This is a great chance to immerse yourself in what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and helpful ways of approaching character development and indeed, the story-crafting process as a whole: character archetypes.

All of that in only 1-week. The course runs begins Monday, March 31. And again, you can do the entire course in your pajamas! Sucking down caffeine! Devouring chocolate bon bons! The beauty of the online experience!

For more information, go here.

Plus there’s this: For nearly 50% off, you can gain immediate access to the entire content of all 8 Craft classes as well as automatic enrollment in each 1-week Craft course. Check out the Craft Package here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Writing A Script, Part 4: Character Development

December 11th, 2014 by

People asked me how I write a script, so here we go with Part 4. This is a follow up to Part 1, which focused on story concept, Part 2, where we looked at brainstorming, and Part 3, which talked about research.

PART 4: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I’m compartmentalizing my creative process, which is misleading. Because as I’m brainstorming and doing research, characters emerge, plot ideas pop up, themes evolve. So do not think of it like, first I do brainstorming for 2 weeks, then I move into research for another 2 weeks, then into characters. No, it’s best, I think, to follow one’s instincts. And at some point, you will have accumulated enough story ‘stuff’ that key characters will spring to life. Then it’s time to dig into them.

I create individual files (in my computer) for the primary characters. I spend time with each of them, ‘sitting’ with them, my fingers on the keyboard as I try to with engage them. Sometimes I’ll take a walk with them, imagining us in conversation. As with brainstorming, I try not to pre-judge; here my task is to let the stuff flow. This allows the characters to be free to evolve into what they are to become.

Think on that word: evolve. It had never occurred to me until recently, but it’s implied in the word “development,” isn’t it? So as we develop our characters, in the best of all creative worlds, we’re letting them evolve into being.

The single biggest key I find about working with characters is to be curious about them. Ask them questions. Interview them. Talk with them. That works for some characters; others I find myself writing a narrative of their past. I don’t know why that is – again, I just follow my instinct.

Whenever an attitude, action, or line of dialogue pops up associated with one of my characters, I’ll follow my curiosity: Why do you think that? Why do you believe that? Why do you act that way?

At some point, I apply seven questions to my characters to try to see what narrative functions each might play in the story:

* Who is my Protagonist?
* What do they want(External Goal)?
* What do they need (Internal Goal)?
* Who is keeping them from it? (Nemesis)
* Who is connected to the Protagonist’s emotional growth? (Attractor)
* Who is connected to the P’s intellectual growth (Mentor)?
* Who tests the P by switching allegiances from ally to enemy (Trickster)?

I believe that these five narrative functions represented by this group of primary archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — occur in most every movie. Once I can identify the core function for each character, I can use that as a lens through which to interpret each of them, thereby tying them directly and intimately to the Protagonist’s journey.

Tomorrow in Part 5, we explore the plotting.

[Originally posted June 8, 2008]

Reader Question: How do you write characters without stereotyping them?

December 3rd, 2014 by

Reader question via Twitter from @Lauren_Gallaway:

I need character development help. How do you write a character w/ out stereotyping him/her?

Lauren, you hit the key words: character development. How to develop your characters? First, you have to believe they exist. Their story universe exists. So you go into the story and engage your characters directly:

* Questionnaire: If you Google “character questionnaire,” you will find dozens of them like this. Use the questions as tools to fill in information and background about each character.

* Interview: This is like a questionnaire only instead of writing in the third person, you interact with the character directly. Create a scenario: You’re cop interrogating the characters. You’re a priest and the character has come to you for confession. You’re a bartender and the character has sat down in front of you for a drink.

* Biography: After you’ve spent some time with a character, try your hand at crafting a biography about them. This will cause you to see possible links and events in their personal history which influenced who they are, how they act, what they believe, etc.

* Monologue: These next two are akin to meditation. Go to a quiet place, try to put yourself in the head-space of your character, then type or hand-write a monologue as delivered by that character. The goal here is to hear their voice, let them do the talking.

* Sit-down: Again get quiet, put yourself in the feeling-space of a character, put your fingers on the keyboard, close your eyes, then just type. 15 minutes, 20 minutes, a half-hour. Your mind will wander, but keep coming back to the character and just type what comes into your mind. Perhaps on 10% of what you write will seem to have any relevance, but that 10% could be gold.

* Primary Archetype: In my view, we see these five character archetypes in movie after movie after movie: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. After you’ve spent more time with your characters, ask yourself: What is the most fundamental narrative function this character provides? Do they provide opposition to the Protagonist? Probably a Nemesis. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s emotional development? Attractor. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s intellectual development? Mentor. Do they test the Protagonist, switching from ally to enemy, enemy to ally? Likely a Trickster. Understanding each character’s primary narrative function will not only provide a lens through which you can craft them individually, it can also give you a ‘map’ of their interrelationships.

* Sub-Type: Imagine a Nemesis as an Addict or a Warrior. An Attractor as an Orphan or Seer. A Mentor as Alchemist or Gambler. A Trickster as Clown or Sage. There are hundreds of Sub-Types you can use to explore and dig into each of your characters in order to discover what makes them unique. Again Google is your best friend. Here is one list.

* Exploratory Scene: Put two or more of your characters together in a scene. Use a setting that would fit with your story, however the scene itself may not necessarily end up in the script. This is just to play around with your characters, see how they interact, hear their voices as they emerge on the page, and so on.

The main thing is engage your characters. Interact with them. No one knows the story better than they do. Plus they want you to tell their story. In effect, they are your allies. The more you interface with them and dig into their personal histories, the more likely you will develop multilayered, distinctive individuals… and not stereotypes.

I should note I teach several 1-week online courses in this area including Character Development Keys, Create a Compelling Protagonist, Write a Worthy Nemesis, and a 6-week online writing workshop Prep: From Concept to Outline, which builds a story’s structure based on a ton of character work. I’ll be offering each of these in the first quarter of 2015.

And of course, there are my blog archives. If you go to GITS Reader Questions, you will find dozens of Q&A’s under the subcategory of Characters.

If anyone has other character development tips, please post in comments.

Thanks for your question, Lauren, and good luck with the writing!

You want character development tools?

September 8th, 2014 by

Check this out:

And this is just some of the character development tools available on this site.

If you have other character development tools or sites, please post in comments.

Crowd Sourcing: Character Questionnaires

March 28th, 2014 by

The subject of character questionnaires arose in one of my recent online classes. I posted some I have sourced and/or generated myself over the years, but it got me thinking: Why not ask the Go Into The Story community to see what questionnaires you may use to develop your characters.

If you’d be kind enough to share links to or examples of questions you have found useful, I thought we could use this exercise as a way of crowd sourcing multiple iterations.

I also have an idea to try something interactive, perhaps next week, to develop a specific set of questionnaires. Don’t want to give that up to muddy the waters for this post, but more on that soon.

Here’s the deal: Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to develop your characters is get curious about them. And one way to engender your curiosity is to ask questions.

Now there are good questions. And not so good questions.

Let’s see if we can aggregate the former.

Please head to comments with your suggestions. Or if you’d prefer anonymity, email me.

I have a feeling along with this idea bubbling in my mind, we may be able to generate a set of questionnaires that can be really helpful in the character development process.

Thanks in advance!

Character Development Keys

March 25th, 2014 by

If there’s one question I get asked about screenwriting theory more than any other it’s what’s my deal with character archetypes? Here’s your chance to find out what that deal is with the Screenwriting Master Class course: Character Development Keys.

It’s a 1-week online class where you do pretty much everything on your own time schedule: download and read lectures, review and post comments on the public forums, upload ideas and optional writing exercises. You want to do that in bed in your pajamas sipping coffee? Be my guest!

There is one teleconference which is live, but I record and upload that, so you can even check that out on your own time, too.

As to the course itself, there are seven lectures written by yours truly:

1: Character Archetypes and Story Structure
2: Protagonist
3: Nemesis
4: Attractor
5: Mentor
6: Trickster
7: Switch Protagonist

The study script for the course: The Dark Knight, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane. If you’re a fan of this movie, that alone is probably reason enough to take this class because you will understand the film in a whole new way, through the lens of character archetypes.

In addition, you will get the opportunity to put the theories you learn into action by workshopping one of your own stories.

And as a bonus: I’ll be presenting a set of character development tools I have assembled over the years to help you dig into characters even further to uncover their unique personalities and voice.

This is a great chance to immerse yourself in what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and helpful ways of approaching character development and indeed, the story-crafting process as a whole: character archetypes.

All of that in only 1-week. The course runs begins Monday, March 31. And again, you can do the entire course in your pajamas! Sucking down caffeine! Devouring chocolate bon bons! The beauty of the online experience!

For more information, go here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Screenwriting Tip: Character work as iceberg

May 9th, 2013 by

In the current 1-week online class I’m teaching — Create a Compelling Protagonist — we have had an incredible experience, more than two dozen writers from all around the world uploading literally hundreds of posts, providing feedback and suggestions for each participant as they workshop their Protagonists. The energy is phenomenal and the quality of the comments equally so.

A question has come up: How much character development is enough?

In theory, I don’t think you can do too much character development. I say this coming from a specific place: Most of the scripts I read that aren’t good enough suffer because the characters are too thinly drawn, not complex enough to be compelling or interesting.

But Scott, I’m writing a genre piece, not “War and Peace.” Do I really need to do that much character development?

Yes, I think you do. Your job is to make your characters lift up off the page and come alive in the imagination of a script reader. To do that, you have to know them in a deep, personal, and specific way.

Otherwise you run the risk of just trafficking in caricatures.

That said, you’re not going to put all of what you know about your characters in the script. Rather most of the background and insights you have about your characters will exist off-screen.

Think of character work like an iceberg:

Iceberg

What you see above the surface of the water? That is what emerges in your script through a character’s actions and dialogue.

What you see below the surface? That is the depth of what you learn about the character when you develop them.

Bios. Questionnaires. Monologues. Sit-downs. Interviews. Archetypes. Whatever tools and techniques you use to go into your characters.

That informs your understanding of your characters.

That enables you to hear their voice.

That brings them to life.

All that content below the surface provides the foundation of what emerges of each character in your script.

So as you develop your characters, especially when you wonder if the effort is worth it, remember this: Everything you learn about your characters is helping to create an iceberg of understanding. The 10% that appears in the script derives from and is supported by the 90% of the work you do to bring that character to life.

Want to up your chops at character development? On May 20, I will be offering the companion class to Create a Compelling Protagonist. It’s called Write a Worthy Nemesis and you can learn about it here. If it’s anything like this current session, it will be awesome! So join me for a great week of learning, writing and creativity!

Are you good at writing characters?

February 18th, 2013 by

Do your characters come to ‘life’ when you write them?

Do they feel real, compelling, and lift up off the page?

Do they make sense and work together to support your story?

Do you know how to discover what each of their narrative functions is?

In sum, are you good at writing characters?

If so, perhaps you don’t need my new class Character Development Keys.

If not, this unique 1-week online writing class may be just what the doctor ordered. And you don’t even need health insurance to take the class!

The course is part of my Craft series of eight classes aimed at helping writers drill down into specific aspects of the writing practice. Dealing with characters is something we not only have to do on a daily basis, but should do well in order to find the heart and soul of our stories.

Moreover in my approach to character-based screenwriting, by going into your characters, that’s where the story reveals itself, everything from the nuances of each individual to big pictures items like Plotline, subplots, themes, and so on.

In this 1-week online course, you will learn about five archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — and use them to develop your story’s characters and help them come to life.

  • From questionnaires to confessionals to free association, you will learn keys to crafting coherent, compelling and charismatic characters.
  • Workshop some of your own story’s characters and develop them by digging into their respective narrative functions.

Seven lectures written by me, special insider tips, a Character Development Tools sheet, daily forum Q&As, workshop your story with my feedback and comments from classmates, a live teleconference, and most importantly the understanding to become empowered as a writer in working with characters.

Almost nothing excites an agent, manager, producer or studio executive more than reading a script with fully realized, three-dimensional, and compelling characters. Character Development Keys not only helps you to delve into your characters and understand them more thoroughly, it gives you an awareness to help bring your characters — and your story — to life.

The class starts Monday, February 25. I will only be teaching it one time in 2013, so enroll now by going here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you… and your characters!

Create A Compelling Protagonist

August 5th, 2012 by

In almost every movie, the most critical character is the Protagonist.

* Typically the story is told through their perspective.
* Their goal usually dictates the end point of the plot.
* All the other primary characters are somehow linked to the Protagonist.
* Normally they go through the most significant metamorphosis.
* And the Protagonist acts as the main conduit into the story for a script reader and moviegoer.

So guess what? You need to create a Protagonist that grabs a reader’s attention and keeps it for 100 pages.

How to do that?

That’s what we will be exploring in my brand new 1-week online class “Create a Compelling Protagonist”. Go beyond writing a ‘sympathetic’ Protagonist. Dig deeper than giving your Protagonist a ‘flaw.’ That is surface level writing. In this class, you will learn an approach that will help you dig into this key character, and craft a Protagonist worth writing… and reading.

Seven lectures, forum feedback, teleconference, and the opportunity to workshop your story’s Protagonist [or Protagonists].

It all starts Monday, August 13th. You can learn more and sign up here.

Note: This 1-week Craft course is coupled with another new class called Create A Worthy Nemesis. That begins Monday, September 3rd. For information on that course, go here.

Don’t forget: Core II: Concept, a 1-week online class covering how to generate, develop and assess story concepts, begins tomorrow Monday, August 6. Your choice of a story concept is the single most important decision you make in any script project. This class offers a comprehensive take on the process. To sign up, go here.

And if you’re interested in TV writing, Tom Benedek has a new class: Write Your Own Original TV Pilot Script. That 10-week workshop starts August 13. For information, go here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you.