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!

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)

Name Changed to Connect the Innocent

September 2, 2009

Speaking of connecting the dots, an idea occurred to me this morning as I reread the Flight of the Ibis shooting script while brainstorming story thread tie-ins of the new story to the original movies from which Joe Cameron, the protagonist of the current story, was formed.

So, here’s what I’m toying with…

One of the lead characters in the developing story is Orlando LaSalle, a young member of the press who is initially influenced by Joe and then, later, becomes the influencer. So, it occurred to me that Flight of the Ibis had a younger reporter as well — Zack Lereau — who may appear in this story, no longer a reporter, and much older of course. Why, in fact, he’d be older enough to have a son about Orlando’s age … and since they both already have French surnames… maybe Orlando could be Zack’s son

It makes sense, because…

It’s not unreasonable to think that a news reporter could breed a news reporter. For starters. But wait, there’s more:

  • Joe Cameron and Zack Lereau formed a solid interpersonal connection in the last movie — a mutual respect. To have Orlando be Zack’s son could let me jettison the Joe-Orlando relationship past the normal who-are-you-and-should-I-care exposition just by having Joe finding out that this whippersnapper is Zack’s son.
  • The story’s Orlando intro is already designed to show that he is not a crowd-follower: not your typical reporter, which is something that Joe liked about Zack. So it’s believable that the son would share characteristics with the father.
  • Having Orlando be Zack’s son would help me bring Zack into the story without fabricating some contrivance to do so; having Joe meet the son of a man he once knew and respected would engender a desire to reconnect.

The only downfall:

And this is minor, really.  But I like the rhythm of the full name Orlando LaSalle, much more so than Orlando Lereau.  It doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly. But I also like Orlando as the reporter’s first name. It just … fits. So, I may have to give him a new first name if I decide to make the Zack-Orlando father-son connection.  Bummer.