Wednesday, August 01, 2007

You have to know your pawns

Bill Martell has an excellent tip for today about backstory. Your characters need well developed backstory or they won't have a well-developed frontstory.

That's probably my greatest writing weakness. I make my characters spring into life as full-grown adults with a tiny amount of thought into where they were before. The only reason for that is that I'm simply lazy.

I'm not lazy about much. I work my ass off most of the time. I keep three or four projects going at the time and I write almost every day. But for some reason the idea of planning out a person's entire life that's never going to appear onscreen bores the crap out of me so I skip it. I want to hurry up and get to the story.

And my stories suffer for it. I know they suffer. That ends up being the source of most of the criticism I receive in my scripts.

Writing Partner insisted on doing this character traits chart for the first project we worked on together and it improved things quite a bit. But when it came time to write my pair of shorts for Bamboo Killers I went back to my old ways. Bamboo Killers turned out to be very good, but that's probably because it's an ensemble piece told in chapters, and the chapters themselves developed a lot of the backstory as we went.

So now I have zombie story in the works. During the staff meeting yesterday I drew up a loose backstory for my five major characters, but they were three or four sentences a piece. That's not good enough.

I have to go back and figure these people out. I should know everything about them. They should be real. Because if they're not real to me, how are they going to be real to someone they just met?

I know Mystery Man and Unk were running some nicely developed character analysis articles in the past, but does anybody have a good chart you use when you design your characters? I didn't like the one Partner and I used. I'd like a new one.

I have to get to know these people before I put them through hell.


  1. I do, but not in digital form. I'll see what I can dig up for you. Do you have Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing? The "Bone Structure" chapter is all about that. It can be a bit of a laundry list so I'd suggest using it as starting point.

  2. I use the plot to determine characterization. Rather than say what kind of person they are define how they react to action.

    As an example, a girl who is spoiled will be less likely to take no for an answer, so throw that in.

    Or if the plot involves some chivalrous character action, throw in some past deed to emphasize it.

    Back story is not always where they're from but how they got "here."

    One chivalrous character says a lot about himself just with "that's not why...I have a little sister."

    All of a sudden he's a caring big brother.

    Or the same character says "I never knew women were so cool." Now he's the average guy who thinks women are a prize. Kind of a contradiction but that's what makes good characters.

    My lead in one story is a virgin but can turn heads when she dances.

    It serves two purposes. One it says she sees her dancing differently than others and two, what a contradiction.

    Another thing I do is define the antag and protag by each other's traits.

    If the protag is friendly the antag is not. If the antag loves cats, the protag hates them. If the protag usually gets their way let the antag prevent it.

    In other words, I don't use static personality definitions but I try to fit personalities to the plot/story.

    I mean, no one knows that you made it all up as you sequenced the story.

  3. In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit lays down a page of questions you should ask your main characters. The book is focused on rom coms, but the list of questions is pretty genre-independent, except for a set of questions that focus on the characters' romantic conquests/experience. If you have the book, find the list.

  4. I don't have either book. I'll look into it.

    Christian, I see that what you do works for you, but that is exactly what I'm trying to fix in my own writing. That's how I've been doing it for years and it has made my character development weaker.

    If you know who a character is before you get to the moment when he has to make the decision, then he acts organically instead of as a reactionary.

    And that's a habit I want to get into.

  5. Believe me I flesh out all characters before I write, but I do it by what the story needs.

    Like a story about snakes will be scarier if the protag is afraid of them.

    Or a prostitute story is better with a "kind-hearted" one than a ball-buster.

    Another thing I like to do is contrast two characters in how the protag deals with them.

    So if the antag is a jerk, present a functional character that isn't and show how the protag reacts to both.

    I may have over-simplified my process. As an example, I'm working on a comedy where an adult teams up with a kid.

    The first thought is the adult doesn't like kids and maybe the kid doesn't like adults. Sparks will fly.

    Do you see what I mean? It's along the lines of the saying: "Story builds characters and characters build story."

    I always start with story and imagine how I can craft the protag's reactions to the plot points based on known quantities like age, race, economic standing, their job or even how happy their childhood was.

    My first fade out has four college girls. One wants to stay a virgin and the others have varying degrees of desire to have sex.

    One dates a lot, one seemingly experimented with homosexuality(subtle), one is just the emotional grounding.

    I think some people try to hard to create a "character" where I try to create situations.

    Different people react differently to any situation so think about a shy person who has to speak in front of an audience or a violent person who has to be a babysitter, etc.

    If you look at Bill Martell's site he says he uses himself. I tend to do that somewhat in that I say "what would I do?"

    Then I look at the character and say well, she would run or curse where I might hit someone or just disregard them.

    As with everything, it may not work as well for you. I'm nly on spec number three, four if you count a short so I'm not an expert but I got good feedback on characterization and dialog which really go hand in hand.

  6. Funny enough I just got an email from Chris Soth about this very thing. Here's an excerpt:

    But then I do some serious character work but her question gave me pause and I realized I WAS able to figure out some characters that needed to be in this story, just by the theme and the character arc that the main character was to go through because all your characters, strictly speaking, are REFLECTIONS OF YOUR HERO, MAIN CHARACTER OR PROTAGONIST.

    YOUR ANTAGONIST OR VILLAIN: Will be, for the most part, the antithesis of your main character, right? They will embody antithetical values. But they will have one vital thing in common -- they will want the same thing, the same desire will drive them throughout the story.

    Basically he's saying the same thing (hey I guess that's a good thing s he's produced and is a teacher). Take the story and create your protag, take the protag and create the antag and take the protag and create the supporting characters.

  7. I don't think you need to know every single little detail that happened to your char's as they were growing up...(I think some people go a little overboard with this & write novels about their char before they start their scripts.)

    ... just some pertinent facts & personality traits that will have an impact on the story you're writing.

    I always start with a char, a goal & a situation. So much of the 'plot' comes from what the char wants, what's in her way, how she handles situations, how she changes emotionally, etc. I think you really do have to know SOMETHING about your protag before you start.

    I use a pre-typed questionaire that i made up from various sources. Kinda what Christina is talking about. I fill this sheet out, & by the end I feel like I know my char's.

    And even if you don't physically fill in the blanks, just reading the questions and THINKING about the answers, is helpful.

    The sheet i use is constantly evolving. I'll send you the version i'm using now.

    Also good to mull over is the RELATIONSHIPS btwn char & how they changes throughout the story.

  8. I've found working with character creation in the method of role-playing games can suitably flesh out a character and give you the traits you need. Try it sometime, you might like it. Most RPGs played on paper these days are based on the same system as "Dungeons and Dragons".


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