Creating Movie Characters That Jump Off The Page

NOTE FROM LB: Back in the day, Robert Gregory Browne was my writing partner on over a dozen scripts for the animated series DIABOLIK, which was a major show on, of all things, French TV, and which eventually made its way to the U.S. Since then, has been writing best-selling novel after best-selling novel, giving us hits like Kiss Her Goodbye, Whisper in the Dark, Kill Her Again, and many more, all of which you can find on good ole Amazon.Com.

For old times sake, or maybe as an early Christmas gift (you never know with writers who are as unpredictable as the plots of their books), Rob has kindly given us permission to publish…hehehe…this:

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by Robert Gregory Browne

Imagine, if you will, The Fugitive with Ace Ventura as the lead.

While much of the plot of this exciting movie could remain intact, the entire flavor of it would be radically different. Scenes would change, dialog would be altered… and, despite the plot similarities, chances are pretty good these two versions would wind up on completely different shelves in your local video store. Which isn’t all that surprising.

Because when we watch a movie or read a book it isn’t really plot that we invest ourselves in. It’s character. The characters set the tone, and our acceptance or rejection of those characters is essential to our acceptance or rejection of the story itself.

Great characters make us laugh and cry or even frustrate and infuriate us. Great characters make us squirm in suspense and excitement. Great characters take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride and are absolutely essential to our suspension of disbelief.

WELL, SURE, BUT…

Whenever I spout off about the all-important need for great characters, someone invariably disagrees. True writing success, they say, lies not only in great characters, but in your ability to come up with a great plot and structure, compelling dialogue and so forth.

And they aren’t wrong. In fact, I couldn’t agree more.

But the simple truth is this — and I’m not the first to say it: your characters define all those things. They are your story. Even if you succeed in giving us a wonderful plot and structure, you’ve got nothing unless your characters jump off the page. In writing fiction of any kind, characters are everything. Everything.

It is impossible to imagine Gone With the Wind without the feisty, self-centered yet courageous Scarlett O’Hara. Or Citizen Kane without the domineering presence of Charles Foster Kane.

But not only are these lead characters all-important, every character that surrounds them seems to be full-bodied and alive. The authors have somehow managed to pump life into every single character that occupies the page.

Now the question is this: how do you and I do the same thing?

CREATING COMPELLING CHARACTERS

Truth is, I can’t tell you how to do this, but I can tell you how I do it — and I’m often complimented on my great characters. But my method, like any other method taught out there, is not surefire for everyone who tries it. In fact, many people will reject it out of hand as being far too simplistic. And they may be right. Yet it works for me. And, who knows, it might just work for you.

There are writing gurus who will tell you that the only way to create a great character is to sit down with a legal pad or a bunch of note cards or a character chart and start filling in the blanks.

How old is the character? What’s his occupation? What are his likes and dislikes? What school did he graduate from? Where’s his hometown? Who were his best friends in grammar school. What kind of parents does he have? Does he have any siblings? The list goes on and on and on.

All of these questions are designed to help you get under the skin of your character. To help you understand him or her to the fullest extent possible so that when you write your scenes, your character will be alive in your own mind. And if he’s alive in your own mind, then surely he’ll be alive in the minds of your audience.

Well, yes. Of course. But, I’m sorry, call me lazy, call me stupid — I just can’t bring myself to sit down long enough to answer all these questions.

Oh, I’ve tried. But halfway through I find myself wondering, what’s the point to all this? I may say my main character attended Dartmouth — but how exactly does that bit of information help me unless it’s directly related to the story at hand?

I have yet to figure it out. Instead, I approach the task in this way:

CHARACTERS ARE ATTITUDE

Let’s go back to Scarlett O’Hara for a moment. How did I describe her? Feisty, self-centered yet courageous? You could throw in flirtatious and childish as well. These are all attitudes that our audience can immediately latch onto and understand. We don’t need to know that she comes from a pampered Southern background and a rebellious Irish father to understand — and perhaps identify with — that attitude. Her attitude alone is enough to draw us in.

Why? Because attitude is action — the character in a state of being. Giving your character an attitude — preferably one that conflicts with the other characters in your story — is a great way to help you and your audience understand who that character is.

CHARACTERS ARE EMOTION

Adding emotion to your character can help your audience identify with him or her. Looking at Scarlett O’Hara again, when Gone With the Wind opens we see the flirtatious and selfish side of Scarlett’s personality. But as the opening scenes continue, we discover that despite all the attention she’s getting from the men in her world, she’s actually in love with another and has been rejected by him. Scarlett is wounded by that rejection yet hides the hurt from all but the object of her affection.

This is an emotion/reaction we can all identify with. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we have seen it in others we know and love. The emotion is what gives depth to… the attitude.

CHARACTERS MUST HAVE A GOAL

Every character must have a goal. Not just the main character. This is a given. Without a goal, your main character will wander aimlessly and your audience will disappear.

But every character that inhabits your story should have a goal. The character’s goal is often what defines both attitude and emotion.

Let’s take a relatively minor character for example. A grocery store clerk. The hero is buying a carton of milk. For a beat of conflict in an otherwise innocuous scene, we might give the grocery store clerk a goal: she wants to go home. She’s been on her feet all day long, the new shoes are killing her and all she wants to do is punch that time clock (and maybe anyone who gets in her way) and get the hell out of there.

This goal can help you define the character’s attitude. Is she weary? Is she grouchy? And how does this affect (read: conflict with) the hero?

Giving such a minor character a goal and an attitude/emotion may seem silly, but the result is a much richer story with much richer characters.

CHARACTER IS ACTION/DIALOGUE

Defining an attitude/emotion and a goal are all wonderful, helpful things. But none of them mean squat if we don’t see these things in action.

Sure, we can have Joe Blow say our hero is a selfish, manipulating bastard, but that means nothing unless we see this for ourselves. The way your character acts and speaks is what finally defines her/him.

When I describe Scarlett O’Hara as flirtatious and self-centered, these attributes are defined by what Scarlett says and does. She flirts with just about every man who enters her world, she manipulates them into paying attention to her despite the unhappiness this brings to the other women around her. By seeing her in action and hearing her words, we quickly understand the attitude and emotion she brings to the story.

The cliche, Show Don’t Tell, couldn’t be more true here. We must always show our characters acting and reacting — not simply talking about their motivations and desires.

ME + IMAGINATION

Defining a character’s goal/attitude/emotion/action are all wonderful things, but how exactly do we go about doing that without resorting to those cards and charts and character sketches the writing teachers tell us we so desperately need?

Again, this works for me. It may not work for you. And it’s deceptively simple:

Every character I write is me. From the hero and heroine down to that grocery store clerk, every single character I write is… me.

Yes, you say, but isn’t that a bit limiting? Doesn’t that make for a rather monotonous set of characters?

Maybe. But I have yet to hear any complaints. If my lead character is a divorced father of three who finds himself unwittingly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, the first thing I ask myself when approaching a scene (even though I’m happily married and wouldn’t know a conspiracy if it jumped up and bit me) is this: how would I react in this situation.

Then I add the color (read: attitude/emotion). How would I react, if… I was a self-centered bastard… a no-nonsense cop… an officious political hack. And I apply this technique to every character I write.

In short, I’m like a method actor playing all of the parts. By using myself and a healthy dose of imagination, I can approach characterization from the inside out. And once I’m able to get into the skin of my characters, it’s much, much easier to create someone whom I, and hopefully the audience, can identify with.

FINALLY…

If you still feel like you have to drag out the cards and charts, then so be it. If knowing every single little detail about your character is important to you, then by all means write them all down, cover your entire wall with important tidbits of information. I would never belittle anyone for doing what feels right for them.

But while you’re at it, take into consideration the things I’ve talked about here. Remember attitude, emotion, goal and action.

Because these are the things that will make your characters leap off the page and propel your audience through the story. The key to success is to get your audience to say (and I’m cringing as I write this):

Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn.

Confessions of NYT Bestselling Author Gone Indie

More practical advice about a most impractical business:

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by Eileen Goudge

Let me begin by saying I’ve never met an author who was an overnight success. It just sounds sexier when you put it that way and makes for good press.

So if you should happen to Google my name and come across an old article about my “meteoric” rise from welfare mom to millionaire, take it with a grain of salt. Yes, I was on welfare, years ago, at an especially low point in my life. And yes, I wrote my way out. But it didn’t happen overnight.

Behind every successful writer is a stack of journals or boxful of unpublished manuscripts moldering in the basement. I’m no exception.

The year was 1983. I had just moved to New York City from California with my two young children, a typewriter and no child support. I’d been eking out a living as a freelance journalist, but needed to find steady work – pronto – or we’d all starve.

At a party I chatted with an attractive young woman who confided that she earned more money moonlighting as a call girl than from her day job as a flight attendant. She offered to set me up with her escort service. I declined.

I wasn’t that desperate.

I signed with a book packager instead.

For the next couple years I paid the rent and stayed afloat churning out genre romances for teens. I was among the stable of ghost writers behind the wildly successful Sweet Valley High teen series created by Francine Pascal. I didn’t get rich from it—I was making only enough to squeak by—but I’m proud of the role I played in launching the series.

The “Overnight Success”

In 1986 I had the joy of seeing my first adult novel published in hardcover. I was ecstatic when Garden of Lies went on to become a New York Times bestseller. I’d been warned that green-colored book covers don’t sell but had ignored the warning, figuring if mine was the only green cover it would stand out. I was right, as it turned out.

Unfortunately it was the only thing I was right about.

Back then I naively believed I’d continue to build on my early success if I reliably produced a book a year. I failed to factor in the variables. The shifting sands of the publishing industry for one and flux and flow of the economy for another.

There was also the fact that I was married to my agent whom I later divorced.

I had a nice ride for a time. The novels that followed Garden of Lies sold well.

The Four-Step Fall from Grace

 Then came a spectacularly horrible two-year period worthy of one of my novels in which I was slammed by the quadruple whammy of:
1) a corporate merger,
2) falling out with my editor,
3) the loss of my in-house “rabbi” to another house,
4) the aforementioned divorce from my agent husband.

I was left reeling. My sales took a hit. That in turn led to booksellers cutting back on orders. Long story short, I eventually reached a point where I was no longer making a living wage.

Come the Revolution

I ought to be depressed, right? Out on a ledge with some Good Samaritan trying to talk me down.

 But I’m not depressed. Instead I’m hopeful. Why?

Because while I was on my ass a revolution was taking place.

With digital sales growing in leaps and bounds, traditional publishing is no longer the only avenue open to writers. Name authors displaced by the seismic shifts in the industry are migrating to indie publishing. Some have enjoyed great success. Others are making a living. The majority continue to struggle.

But one thing is clear: Indie publishing is a boon to writers. It provides hope where there was little and give us some control over our own destinies.

The inspiration for my first indie-published title, Bones and Roses, Book One of my Cypress Bay mystery series, came while I was strolling on the beach in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California.

I’m fan of the genre and always wanted to write a mystery, since I created the teen series Who Killed Peggy Sue? in the 1980’s. When I sat down to write the first draft, it poured out of me.

But writing was the easy part.

The Steep Learning Curve

Becoming my own publisher required a whole other skill set.

I took a self-taught crash course in indie publishing by reading everything I could find on the subject and picking the brains of my indie author friends. My friends have been amazing. They’re always on hand to answer questions, share resources and provide reassurance.

But I couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach and the little devil on my shoulder whispering in my ear that I was a fraud, I’d never be able to pull this off. In addition to the mechanics of launching of a business, there were social media platforms and computer programs to master (Goodreads alone was a labyrinth that had me lost!) and the biggest challenge of all: finding the time to do everything.

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TVWriter™ Top Posts for the Week Ending 12/19/14

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Here they are, the most viewed TVWriter™ posts during the past week:

Peggy Bechko: Writers, Writing and Writer’s Gifts For The Holidays

Peggy Bechko: Characters and Skills

Best Day Jobs For Aspiring Screenwriters

More About Writing Strong Scenes

What the Golden Globes 2015 nominations say about TV right now

And our most viewed resource pages were:

Writing the Dreaded Outline

THE SPEC SCRIPTACULAR

The Teleplay

THE PEOPLE’S PILOT

The Logline

Big thanks to everyone for making this such a great week, and don’t forget to read what you missed, re-read what you loved, and, most importantly, come back for more soon!

Troy DeVolld: Toughing Out Those Dry Spells

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by Troy DeVolld

Woke up this morning feeling great.  I’ve got a game show in play and some EP possibilities on the horizon after a pretty tough stretch, which inspired me to write the following post to Facebook this morning.

Remember, the entertainment business is no cake walk.

The older I get, the more I realize that everything’s transitional. Wild periods of success and struggle come and go no matter what you do or how you plan for them.

Here’s my story — and there’s a moral to it and loads of good stuff and gratitude on the other side, so don’t get bogged down with the little bit of bum-outage in the middle part of this thing.

Two years ago, I was three years and five seasons into a hit show as its Co-EP when an executive shuffle at network led to a discussion of “refreshing” the series, which ultimately resulted in me getting the axe. Every major exec (SVP and above) at the production company I worked for had moved to other opportunities elsewhere over the three years I’d been there, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the new topper didn’t go to bat for me over the network’s ask — we’d barely had the chance to work together. She replaced me and while I really stewed about what had happened for a long time, I tried hard to just take it on the chin and move forward.

As I’d been counting on returning to the show and hadn’t made much effort to network elsewhere for three years, Spring and Summer of 2013 were lean. I managed to get by with a series of smaller jobs including the first season of Hollywood Game Night (a wonderful experience), finally landing another Co-EP seat when an old friend called and asked me to come work for him on a new docu-series. As sometimes happens with bold, unusual concepts, the show struggled to find a tone acceptable to the network and the friend that had brought me on began to plan his exit from the company for another opportunity.

Christmas came, and I went home for our extended two-week unpaid holiday break. Just before our return, I was asked if I could wait another week to come back as the company considered its course of action with the troubled project. That extra week became another, then another, and I was finally let go more than a month after I’d last set foot in the office while someone else was brought in to replace me and given the latitude to execute the position effectively.

I was crushed. Twice in under one year, I’d been let go from a show. Prior to that, I’d never been fired in the 27 years since I’d first taken a job making pizzas at 16.

For whatever reason, I didn’t land anywhere for the entire first half of the year…. another first, as I usually roll from one job right into the next. I went six months without a paycheck (having declined January offers in the period while I waited for the series to tell me what my return date that never came would be), and finally wound up going to work for someone who once worked for me when he got a well-earned break on a new series. I had a great time with him and his post team, comprised of many of the people who had been with me on the hit show that cut me loose in 2013. The end result was terrific, even if I had fallen down the ladder a bit.

From there, I rejoined Dancing With the Stars, which just ended its 19th season around Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been there since season 3, so the whole experience felt like a high school reunion. Once again, my direct supervisor was someone who had once been on one of my story teams, and I had wonderful time.

As 2014 draws to a close, I still struggle with the financial and emotional ramifications of the six-figure and sometimes humiliating torpedoing I took in 2013/14, but I do think it’s made me more appreciative of the alignment of circumstances that led me to the successes I had enjoyed up until then and those I’ll enjoy in the future. My work ethic remains solid, and I know who I am and what I can do.

The lectures (most recently London, LA, Tel Aviv) and consults continue, and one of the main points of every one-on-one discussion I have with clients and students is that it’s important to understand what a crapshoot this business is. The important things are to work hard, be likable, and to develop a thick skin, like the one these past two years have granted me.

I am encouraged, and I feel stronger moving forward. The period where I felt as if a career has to progress logically and on some sort of fixed upswing is gone. The period where I expected loyalty has passed without me feeling as if I should give up my loyalties to others. I am absolutely beat to hell, but I’m still here and God save me, I still like what I do.

Adversity passes. Your responsibilities in life are to stay alive, to learn, and to be accountable to yourself.

Here’s to all of us in 2015.

20 Years in Comedy’s Best Writers’ Rooms: A Conversation with John Riggi

John Riggi may well be the most successful sitcom writer you’ve never heard of. Well, you’re hearing about him now, gang, so we suggest you do what we did – read and learn. Read and learn:

by Matt Siegal

John Riggi has written for, among many other shows, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock,and the first and second seasons—nine years separated—of HBO’s The Comeback. He spoke with us about his two decades in the industry: about how TV writing has changed; about how TV writers have changed; about working in the industry while gay, then and now; and about coming back, again, to HBO.

john riggiMy way into television writing was so atypical, because I started out as a standup and that’s what took me out of Ohio to Chicago. I started working a lot at the Improv in Chicago, and I met a lot of L.A.-based comedians there and one of the main ones, strangely—I say because of our different political leanings—is Dennis Miller. We worked together for a week and really kind of keyed into each other, and he was very interested in me and he just kept saying you’ve got to move to L.A., you’ve got to move to L.A., and so I did. He had said he was potentially going to get this talk show, and would I be interested in writing on it, and I said sure.

I wasn’t really interested in political humor, so I kind of pushed through the idea of doing these desk pieces that became longer and longer and more complicated and became little narrative pieces. And then that show got canceled after eight months. I had read for a part on a show that Garry Shandling was doing called The Larry Sanders Show, and I got the part, and then through a very long story that isn’t important, I ultimately didn’t get the part. The Larry Sanders Show was just about to start up at the same time that The Dennis Miller Show was canceled, so I wrote a script, and I didn’t know what I was doing; I had never written a script before in my life. My script got to Garry and I went in and had a meeting, and then heard nothing, and was kind of giving it up. And then I met him at Campanile [a Los Angeles restaurant] where HBO was having a party for the Cable Ace Awards. My One Night Stand for HBO (a now-defunct stand-up comedy series) was nominated for an award, and my husband David said, “Put your tux on and go down to Campanile and find Garry and talk to him about this job.” So I did, and I finally got to Garry, and he said, “I’m just really worried; I’m not sure you’ll be happy being a writer on The Larry Sanders Showbecause you wanted to be an actor,” and I said, “I just want to work on it—I don’t care.” And that was on a Sunday and then that following Wednesday I got hired.

What was your brand of humor?

It was very long form, like I didn’t really have jokes. One time I got this gig where I got to open up for two weeks for Diana Ross in Las Vegas and I was so excited. The first night I did it I bombed terribly, and I realized that the Las Vegas audience didn’t want to get to know me, they just wanted me to do some jokes and get off, and so I went back to my room that night and thought, “What setup punchline jokes do I have?” So I just extracted everything else that wasn’t a joke and just went out and told jokes for ten minutes and it went much better.

Your first writers’ room was Dennis Miller. Was that a boys’ club?

Yes, the only woman was Leah Krinsky, but it was an amazing writing staff. It was Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (creators and Executive Producers of Will & Grace), it was Eddie Feldman, it was Kevin Rooney, it was Drake Sather, it was Ed Driscoll, Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti—people who went on to do a bunch of different things.

Was gay okay in that writers’ room?

It was okay—I don’t think it was necessarily prized in any way. I don’t think it was like, “What’s the gay perspective on this joke?” I don’t think that ever happened. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me quite frankly…maybe on The Comeback.

Writers’ rooms, to me, don’t necessarily seem like a “safe space,” so where was your comfort level during Dennis Miller?

Oh my god, I’m just realizing that I don’t think I was out yet. I wasn’t out. So my comfort level was really bad. Like I remember one time—I don’t know why he did this, I can’t remember the circumstance—but we were looking to move to this guesthouse in Silver Lake—me and my boyfriend at the time. And for some reason Dennis [Miller] came with me to look at this place, and I remember that I went to work wearing black bicycle pants and Doc Martens and some kind of weird t-shirt, and I remember we were walking up the steps to look at this place, and I remember Dennis going, “Reej, what’s going on with the outfit? What, are you going gay on me?” I remember him saying that and I was like “No, no, what are you talking about?” So my comfort level was not great as far as that goes. Like I was very much a part of that [writers’] room and I was appreciated for what I was bringing to the table comedically, but I was not at all talking about my personal life.

So you flew under the radar in terms of passing as straight.

Yes, surprisingly.

But, could one be a big ol’ queen in a writers’ room in 1991?

I don’t think—not on that show. I don’t think so. I think it was too—I don’t think it would be overt, but I just don’t think it would work. I don’t think it would work.

So, you went from Dennis Miller directly into writing for The Larry Sanders Show. Did you feel more secure as a writer at that point?

No, I felt like I jumped in the deep end of a swimming pool—I knew what that show was. I mean, almost immediately I realized that I was working in an environment where the bar, writing-wise, was so high that it was a little bit intimidating. Garry taught me the kind of writing that I like the best, which is writing about human behavior that’s funny as opposed to writing jokes. I can write jokes, and I do it for a living, but, like, Garry used to say to us all the time, “Write the behavior and then figure out what’s funny about the behavior.” I’ve never forgotten that and I think it’s really good advice, but it’s also really hard—that’s why people write jokes.

Even then, as green as I was, I remember watching us shoot stuff, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I’m seeing something that is above the level of what most shows are.” Just the level of those guys like Rip [Torn] and Jeffrey [Tambor]. They were such good actors.

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Cargo 3120: The Making of a Sci-Fi Franchise #10

CARGO3120Entry 10 – From Cargo to Cargo 3120: The Rise of the Webcomic
by Aaron Walker Sr.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Story So Far starts HERE)

After three years of writing classes, universe building and rewrites both minor and major, we were making good progress. We worked on everything from character profiles, to an ongoing series bible. We were going all in on this one, because we felt that Cargo was a story worth telling.

We knew going in that getting a pilot picked up by a major network was a longshot, so we had to find another way to build an audience. So the decision was made to tell our TV series as a webcomic called Cargo 3120 (the number representing the year in which the story takes place).  We planned to continue writing our episodes in the TV Script format, then convert those scripts in to comics. Simple, right? There was just one problem: none of us could draw!

So the first order of business was to find an artist.

On my day job as an IT analyst for the State of California, I had a co-worker named Lemelle Wherry. He was a great artist with a passion for scify and comics. Most importantly, Lemelle had a desire to be part of a project where he can make his mark in the industry. He was all over it after reading the script. While we had our team, you can’t have a webcomic without a website. But web design was never my thing. Because we had no budget, we couldn’t pay for a web designer, so it was all on me.

Next Week: Taking on the World Wide Web