John Ostrander on Making Your Characters Miserable

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by John Ostrander

Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, and World War Z, among others), is a favorite of Mary’s and mine. It that starred Will Farrell in a very atypical Will Farrell role, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson.

The story concerns an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who starts to hear a narrator in his head. The voice turns out to be a world famous author who is writing a story about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick. The author, Karen Eiffel, always kills off her main character at the end of the book. The real Harold’s only hope to survive is to find the reclusive author and convince her not to kill him. Eventually, they meet.

Karen Eiffel, understandably, is freaked to encounter an actual Harold Crick. He’s just as she pictured him. They both know that if she kills him off in prose, he will die in reality. She is confronted with the reality of what she does; Harold Crick isn’t just a creature of her imagination. He’s a flesh and blood person.

As a writer, I find that notion unnerving.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to have a somewhat similar experience. At the Motor City Con I got a chance to meet the actor, Michael Rowe, who was playing Floyd Lawton – Deadshot – on the TV series Arrow. And, yes, a bit of Stranger Than Fiction ran through my head. Of course, Mike Rowe is not Deadshot; he was perfectly nice and friendly and complimentary. However, I had a few nanoseconds of feeling, well, anxious.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I would want to meet most of my characters face to face. Why? Because I’m the guy who makes their lives miserable. I can see most of them wanting to take a swing at me – or worse. For them, I am the Creator. I incarnate their lives and their adventures. I’m god. Notthe god but a god (as spake Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day).

Have you ever had a day when you really just wanted to haul off and hit your Creator? I know I have and I’m an agnostic. When my late wife Kim was dying, I was sitting in the car at one point, hitting the steering wheel and cussing out God. I thought we had a deal; I would accept her death and she would die without pain. That day she was in excruciating pain.

I talked it over with my pastor, The Rev Phillip Wilson, and he thought my cussing out God was a good thing. He said that the Bible had lots of instances where the human argued or yelled at God. Towards the end of the story of Job, the title character learns that all his troubles stem from a bet between God and Satan and lets loose on Yahweh for destroying his life. Job was justified if you ask me.

God’s answer? Essentially, God skirts the issue and demands, “Hey, where were you when I created everything?” He tells Job that he’d better button it. Not a real answer but I can see why Job didn’t press the issue. This is Yahweh after all who drowned the earth in a fit of pique.

So why do I do it? Why do I make my characters’ lives so miserable?

It’s for the sake of the story.

When we were first married, Kim used to ask me how would I react in such and such a situation. How would I feel?  (I could get myself into trouble by suggesting that this is the sort of speculative question some women like to ask their men. I don’t want to get in trouble by saying that, although I admit to thinking it.) I would always answer “I dunno. Ask me when we get there.”

I felt and feel that’s a fair answer. We don’t know how we would react in a given situation or facing this or that pressure. We only know how we’d like to think we would act but until you’re in that moment, you don’t know. You can’t until you’re actually faced with the situation.

How we react in those situations reveal who we really are – not who we think we are or hope we would be. In a story, it reveals character. The tougher the situation, the clearer we see who the character really is. It’s one of the rules about character. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do that really matters – just like in life.

By putting my characters through the wringer, I reveal who they are and the reader, by vicarious experience, may learn something more of who they are. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile. That can make the story compelling and memorable.

So what I do to my characters is not out of sadism (well, not only out of sadism) but for the sake of the story.

However, I still wouldn’t want to meet GrimJack or most of my other characters in a darkened alley in the middle of the night.

Brrrr.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

TVWriter™’s Top Posts of the Week Ending July 3rd

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The posts TVWriter™ visitors clicked on most during the past week were:

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO HAVE ON PAGE ONE OF YOUR SCRIPT

LB: Goodbye to Mr. Steed

Looking for TV Pilot Scripts?

How ‘Fake Steve Jobs’ Got a Gig Writing for SILICON VALLEY

Supernatural Season 1 Finale – Recap and Review

And our most viewed resource pages were:

Writing the Dreaded Outline

THE PEOPLE’S PILOT

The Teleplay

The Logline

Advanced Online TV and Film Writing Workshop

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

Happy July 4th and Everything for Which It Stands!

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Troy DeVolld Dishes About His Career in Reality TV

For the past decade or so, writer-producer Troy DeVolld has been a pivotal presence in the world of reality TV…and a frequent contributor to TVWriter™ as well. Thanks to this podcast, we now have the chance to listen to this master storyteller spin what could be his most exciting tale yet – his life:

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Click HERE to hear Troy on the GIRLZ IN THE WOOD PODCAST

Surviving When Your Script Goes into Production

If you’re writing for TV, you know you’re a professional when you realize that your goal is to create scripts that aren’t just for reading but for shooting. Most of us find watching our work being shot both exhilarating and frustrating. Here are some tips for surviving a situation that, if you’re lucky, will endure for the rest of your professional life:

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by Mark Sanderson

If you’re blessed enough to actually sell a screenplay or get paid for an assignment job, your script will move into the important development process where hopefully your project marches toward production. This is your opportunity to shine as the ultimate collaborator and team player and you should do whatever it takes to move the project closer to the ultimate goal of production. It’s not the time to be precious with your material or a diva that bristles at the necessary changes. You want to stay involved in the development process as long as possible to help build your reputation and show your producers and director how vital it is to keep you around.

I’m blessed to have collaborated with many of the directors of my assignment screenplays because of my close working relationship with the producers. When the script finally hooks a director, the producer receives suggestions on how best to shoot the film given the director’s vision and the budget. That’s when I meet with the director and we discuss the requirements to push it closer toward production. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are veterans of the business, some with hundreds of hours of TV or dozens of films to their credit, and it’s in my best interest to listen and learn. Some of the directors have also been writers, and I’ve been fortunate they have respected that I wrote the screenplay and allowed me to do my job as they do theirs.

I’ve been lucky these directors never dictated to me what they needed as if I was an assistant, but treated me as a full collaborator. We discussed the issues and I was given a chance for my input, and then I went off and made the changes under the agreed deadline. The producers allowed this process to happen and it showed their respect for the role of the screenwriter on their project. I’ve been lucky, as this might not be the norm in Hollywood and your first time out may be different. If you do get a chance to work with directors, savor the experience and learn all you can from them as mentors.

Working with directors is an invaluable experience because you’re allowed to collaborate with the person whose job it is to put your words and story onto the screen. Give the director what he or she needs to make the film and you will be remembered as a vital part of the production. At this point in the process, you’re doing production drafts and the script becomes more of a technical document as everything is about making the script ready for the first day of shooting and beyond. Working with directors will help you become a production savvy screenwriter as you learn the realities of filmmaking, how to stay out of the way of the story, and how not overstep your responsibilities as the screenwriter.

Read it all at SSN Insider

HAPPYISH Creator Shalom Auslander Works Out His Demons on TV

Are you one of those writers who feels tortured by inner demons and write to expunge them and illuminate the darkness of their souls. Yeah, mate, us too. But just in case you need further validation, HAPPYISH creator Shalom Auslander shows us that we aren’t alone:

happishby Eric Volmers

Shalom Auslander was at his home in Woodstock, NY when Showtime president David Nevins called to talk about developing his new show, Happyish.

He asked Auslander, a TV newbie, where he planned to set up his writing room.

“I said ‘I’m in the writing room, what are you talking about?’” says Auslander, who was giving a masterclass at the Banff World Media Festival Wednesday morning.  “He was surprised but said ‘Oh, so you just want to do it yourself?’ I said I think that’s probably the best for this stage of it. He said ‘OK, fine.’ So they really did embrace the process.”

It’s a trend in premium TV, where network brass take a hands-off approach and allow creators to offer very personal, singular visions.

Happyish, about the mid-life malaise of a depressed ad executive played by Steve Coogan, is Auslander’s first foray into television. He was used to the much more solitary pursuits of writing short stories, essays, memoirs and novels and contributing to public radio’s This American Life.

Writing has always been a personal endeavour for Auslander, a “survival mechanism” and “tool to get through life and laugh at the darkness.”

When he first considered writing something based on his past life in advertising, he initially envisioned it as prose of some sort. But he realized that advertising world, with its commercials and powerpoint presentations, would work best in a more visual medium.

Still, Happyish isn’t really about advertising. It seems to belong to the same TV club as FX’s Louie in presenting angry, unhappy and occasionally unlikable people for laughs. Coogan plays Thom Payne, an ad man who feels increasingly hostile towards a younger world he no longer feels a part of.

While the series originated from a dark place, it also hit by tragedy early on. Initially, it was being developed as a project for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in 2014.

Read it all at Calgary Herald