Birthing Believable Characters

October 27, 2009

The late film director Edward Dmytryk said in his book On Screen Directing that It is desirable that all characters, even those only briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing."

While he’s addressing directors here, this bit of wisdom is at least as valuableimage for the screenwriter to consider (which is why you’ll also find this on the Story Characters and Characterization page of my collection of favorite writer quotations).

In fact, even though I direct as much as write, I feel that this perspective on story characters is more important for the writer to take to heart because…

They are your babies, baby!

One often painful reality for screenwriters is the business of what happens to the story after they’ve crafted their vision of it. The collaborative nature of filmmaking often diminishes the holiness of your written words to mere suggestions.  The producer, the studio, the director, the actors, the distributors, and a host of others—who may all want a voice in what the movie should be about, and even how your story should be told—will pull, tug, and rip at the the fabric of your story as they make their mark on the outcome of the movie. If you’re lucky, the spine of your story remains intact.  The rest is up for grabs.

So, if you want the story to remain as close to your original intentions as possible, then consider the significance of Dmytryk’s perspective when birthing your characters, long before the director will be in a position to question whether or not one of your characters is important enough to “keep.”

With that in mind, my plan is to…

Make it real to keep it real

If I create story characters that feel real—fully formed: as multidimensional as you or me—no matter how briefly the story reveals them, then the actor or director is more likely to be inspired to invoke rather fabricate each character’s reality. And this Dmytryk quote inspires me to remember this.

For inspiration by example…

I turn to the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs.  Although the powerful portrayals of the main characters is the first thing that likely comes to mind, I ask you to think about the many supporting and bit characters: the victims, the possible witnesses, the agents, the guards. I easily recall how even those shown ever-so-briefly were “presented as whole human beings,” as Dmytryk implores.

For example, when I watch the scene where FBI agent Clarice Starling spends less than 30 seconds at a woman’s doorway, questioning her, I get the distinct impression that this lady is a real woman, not a “day player”—that she has a long and rich personal history, that her universe began long before we see her, and will continue without us once the door is closed.

Silly though, isn’t it? She’s a little bitty slice of fiction, that’s all.

But through the combined talents of the actor and director, the lady at the door, artfully created by novelist Thomas Harris and modified for screen by Ted Tally, has become a real person for us, the viewers. 

As a director I find that inspiring. As a writer, I am also challenged by this to make it a goal in my own stories: to birth characters that, no matter how briefly I present them, will intrigue the reader, drawing them into the apparent reality of each and every character.

What about you?

Any movies you recall whose bit parts drew you in and compelled you to want to know more about them?  Do tell!