Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 2)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

Yesterday we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Today writers zero in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters:

Seth Lochhead: “It starts with behavior. Specific tics and eccentricities. We all have them and we can all relate to them (no matter how specific, we’ll always find a corollary to our own experience). These, as well as appearance, build up the outward persona… The character’s depth comes as you begin to layer in these specific traits and from these traits, as you get to know your characters, you, as the writer, can anticipate how they will react to certain stimuli. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. A fireman will put out a fire a lot differently than a waitress.”
Brian Duffield: “I find that by starting with theme, you instantly gravitate towards a character who is almost at an opposite place to deal with that theme, and then throw them into the movie and see what happens. Just by doing that, you have an interesting character who has a big obstacle to overcome, and it becomes really fun fleshing them out and figuring out the nuts and bolts of why they’d be the way they are. Lately I’ve been really drawn towards pushing character as far as it can go, to the point where they’re barely recognizable as human, and figuring out how to relate and understand that character. I think I’m just hungrier as a writer to see what I can do, especially with character.”
Rajiv Joseph: “With Draft Day, what we had a lot of was, “It would be cool if that one moment in the movie just happened,” or like, “One moment in the movie this guy said this,” or, “If the one moment in the movie…” We weren’t even planning out when, or where, or how, or why. You have to think of cool moments that if you left the movie, “How about that moment when this happened…?” That’s what you often do with movies.”
Scott Rothman: “I read an interview with Steven Gaghan, the writer of Traffic and a bunch of other stuff… He was saying when he first started out, he was being mentored by a veteran screenwriter. Gaghan kept saying, ‘I thought of this really cool idea, but there’s no way, it’s too crazy, and it’ll never make the movie.’ The guy taught him that’s exactly the thing, that everything else is bullshit. It’s only those things that you find cool and crazy that you need to figure out a way to make those moments the thing in your script. That’s the stuff that’s going to get through development and really connect with people. That really stuck with me, and I couldn’t agree more with Rajiv, that really is our process. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’”

Perhaps the single biggest key to brainstorming character is to ask questions.

Joshua Golden: “Creating characters that are unique enough, but that we can relate to, in a way. Usually, it’s starting with a few basic questions. Who are they? Where are they in life right now? What are they looking for? What do they want? What do they need? Usually, those two will run in opposition to one another. Then there’s small stuff, little details. Their backgrounds and how they speak or what they look like. I’ll sometimes just write scenes with a couple of characters kind of going back and forth just to kind of get an idea of how they would interact with one another.”
Barbara Stepansky: “First I start out with archetypes in my brain. Is it a drunk from South Glasgow or the bitchy rich girl? But then there’s the digging. You know the stereotype is not the end of the story, because even though they’re fulfilling a certain type of person that I need, they’re still a person and I need to know where they’re coming from. So sometimes characters completely change on me once I dig in deeper. I start out as archetypal as I can to keep it simple but then I go in and I answer these long and involved character questions. I start to get a sense of the bigger story behind that person. I described her as bitchy. What does that mean? What is she angry about? Where is that chip on her shoulder coming from? Sometimes those character traits that I’m coming up with as I’m digging deeper become story points as you realize what their agenda is. How do they change? What do they need for catharsis? Do they need to cast aside their anger? Who do they need to confront that’s keeping them from achieving something? There’s so many great screenwriting books that contain, e.g. “100 questions to ask your character”. You have to actually answer them. Most of it you know you’re not going to use, but you’ll know what they’re like as people.”
Chris Roessner: “I started off as an actor so I think about character a lot. One of the things we talked about in acting is a character’s filter. Meaning, what is that one defining thing from that person’s life that determines how they see the world? When I think about character, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about, what was the event from this person’s life that shaped the way they see the world? If you can nail that in an honest way, then you’re in really great shape moving forward. You’re going to have to learn these characters through more and more drafts. But I think starting that first draft, knowing what your character’s filter is, is crucial.”
Brad Ingelsby: “Where did they grow up? What did they do as kids when their parents were away? What bar did they used to drink at? It’s those things that build camaraderie between people, so that when they’re talking I feel like these people have known each other their whole life. In that sense, it’s just adding to the richness of the relationship.
Nick Palmer: “We do pretty extensive character bios and a lot of those are based on a list of questions we’ve put together. The questions range from trivial, everyday surface stuff to deeper, interior emotional/psychological landscape stuff. Mostly though, they force us to get specific and detailed and to really flesh the characters out as human beings.
Jeremiah Friedman: “The biggest question we try to answer for every character is the pretty standard one. What does he want? Why? That really drives everything and then we just try to create a worldview that’s unique to the character and feels specific and human.


* Whether you think about “specific tics and eccentricities”. Or you’re “starting with theme”. Or you sit around pondering, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” No matter how you do it, the act of brainstorming, letting your mind wander in relation to your story’s characters… who they are… how they are… why they are… what they are… that can be a most fruitful exercise.

* Embrace questions because they are some of the most valuable tools you have for digging into your characters. This can help in fleshing out a character as a complex individual as well as delving deep into their core nature to discover some fundamental drivers: What do they want? What do they need? What do they fear the most? Those three questions right there can go a long way in giving you considerable insight a character’s psyche.

How about you? How do you brainstorm your characters? What questions do you like to ask about them? Ask to them?

For Part 1 of this week’s series on character development, go here.

Tomorrow we take up another angle on prep-writing as reflected on by Black List writers.

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