Characters & Characterization

October 10, 2009

These are some of my favorite quotations for fiction writers on creating, developing, and unveiling great story characters. On other topics, see more quotations for writers here.


“Good screenwriting allows the main character to discover what’s going on at the same time as the audience discovers what’s going on. Character and audience are connected by the community of emotion.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“At the end of a movie (or any good narrative) ask yourself, How did the main character change? What did she want or need at first, how did she go about getting it, and what did she finally achieve or discover? What did that character learn? Usually there is an obvious answer that hides some more problematic issues: the action plot may be over, but a new plot is just beginning.”
(Stephen J. Cannell)

A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves conflict. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“It is desirable that all characters, even those only shown briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing.”
(Author and Film director Edward Dmytryk from his book On Screen Directing).

Beware of sympathy between characters. That is the END of “drama.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“A good film is behavior. In the language of screenwriting, action is character. What a person does is what he is. How the characters respond, what they do, what they say, how they act or react in a particular situation are what really define their character.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“What I’ll do is go out in the backyard in the morning, and just sit there and try to open myself up and let the characters come to me; let them talk to me. So much of writing is about getting quiet enough so you can hear your characters talking. Sometimes I feel they choose you because they know you’re listening. You just have to shut up and listen.”
Screenwriter Callie Khoury

“When you have two characters equally sharing the role of protagonist, their combined personalities become a single entity — the yin and yang… two halves that complete each other.” He uses Thelma and Louise as an example of this.
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

Obstacles must confront your hero throughout your screenplay”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“When the screenwriter stares into that 60 page unit of dramatic action that makes up Act II, it’s important to remain focused on the dramatic need of the character. It establishes the foundation of the conflict that pushes the action forward through Act II and will provide a context for the Confrontation.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“Stories are driven by desire; Your hero’s goals and objectives determine the story concept, plot, and structure.”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“In every film that’s worth its salt, there’s the text, and there’s the subtext. And the subtext of this film is alienation. The language and the culture worked against Gene’s character.” John Frankenheimer, Director talking about the lead character in French Connection II played by Gene Hackman)

Putting Meat on Their Bones

September 3, 2009

I had to break today from developing the Act 2 step outline when I hit scenes that demand development of the five US College-Spring-Break Students and their parents. Without unique personalities, I quickly became bogged down in generalities.

About those “other guys”

In the first act, I was able to get by with only one of the five students named and fleshed out, while simply referring to her traveling mates as “the other well-bred American students.” No problem with that … until now.

I put away the step outline and jumped right into the character sheet, which is where I’m listing all the characters by name and giving each a short description. This morning, I filled in the gaps for these American students and their parents, most of whom need to be socially powerful — monetarily, politically, and such (you’ll see why later).

Apart from this, at least for the primary story characters, I’m also creating detailed character descriptions — a few paragraphs usually, or even a few pages for major or more complicated, dramaturgically pivotal characters. But not this morning.

More on that later. Today, I just honed in on the character sheet, with an eye on…

Connecting the students to the plot line

I already had a general idea of what personalities would need to be represented among the students, and how their parents would later alter the course of the storyline. Now, having reached a point where I could no longer go on until I took the time to make these kids real, I reviewed all the major plot points, looking for opportunities to heighten the drama or strengthened the story’s emotional spine by interjecting the students or their parents. From that, I gave them distinct personalities that would support those plot points, and also endowed them with real names that felt “right” to me.

That’s now done. And, let me tell you, it was both…

A worthwhile diversion, and well-timed!

Had I tried to mold them into dimensional characters earlier, before the storyline was sufficiently formed, it likely would have been a meandering guessing game, based less on how they would each effect the lead characters or the plot, and more on generic assumptions about what I think might be fun for people to watch.



But breaking to do this now, the story was hungry, greedy for their existence. It anxiously reached in to my subconscious and ripped the characters out, effectively forcing them into being.

Don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Invigorating, actually. I just kinda’ sat back and watched.

So, who are they?

Going forward, instead of just “Sandy, and the other students,” here’s what I’ve got to work with:

SANDY BROUGHAM — A confident, comely, well-bred American lass on spring break from college. She is graceful and intelligent, and smitten by Sean, who is smitten by her.

JIM BROUGHAM — Sandy’s brother. An athletic and affable young man, lacking in the looks department. Not witty, but laughs easily, enjoying the humors of others.

MRS. VICTORIA BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s loving mother, and also a state supreme court judge. Quick to judge, but, once beyond her initial reaction, she’s able to assess accurately, wisely.

MR. JOHN BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s father. A US senator.

JANICE HOROWITZ — Also well bred and intelligent, but this Spring breaker is sorely lacking in self-confidence and social graces … when sober.

COLLEEN SMITH — Rather attractive American Spring breaker. Not from money or power, and not very studious. An athletic daredevil and wicked prankster. Funny as hell.

MR. JERRY SMITH — Colleen’s father. A widower of limited financial means. Dearly (smotheringly) loves his daughter — his only child.

JOSH KINGSLEY — Another US Spring breaker: a lanky and quick witted poli-sci major. He loves a good political battle, but too likeable to get rankled about it, as he artfully employs humor to defuse and persuade.

MR . CAMERON KINGSLEY — Josh’s “Type A” father. A nationally known American TV political commentator. Loves his son, and dearly loves his work.

MRS. RAMONA KINGSLEY — Josh’s devoted mother. A quiet woman, honest as the day is long; naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

Much more satisfying! Now, I’m charging back into the step outline with this bevy of clearly formed characters at my side, spurring me on.

It just gets more fun every day. Tally ho….